Saturday, February 26, 2011

Saintly Saturday: The Samaritan Woman at the Well

Today is the feast day of the Samaritan women at the well from the fourth chapter of the Gospel according to St. John. One of the things that I truly love about the Orthodox Church is Her very long memory. Whereas the Bible only knows her as the Samaritan women, the Orthodox Church knows her name, her life and her death.

St. Photine had five sisters and two sons. She went to Carthage in order to preach the Gospel. She was martyred along with her family in Rome in A.D. 68 under Nero. While all of this information is inspiring, I am most interested in the title that the Church gives her: Equal-to-the-Apostles.

This isn't a moniker given to her in the wake of the equal rights or feminist movements of the the twentieth century. It is one she deserved and has had for almost two millenia. It speaks to the radical equality that can only be found in Christ and reminds us of the vital role women play in Scripture:
  • the first person to hear the Good News of the Incarnation: a woman (the Virgin Mary — Luke 1:31)
  • the first sign performed by Christ in His ministry: done at the request of a woman (the Virgin Mary — John 2:5)
  • those who were brave enough to stand by Christ at the Cross: women (Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James the Less and of Joses, Salome, the Virgin Mary, etc. — Matthew 27:55, Mark 15:40, Luke 23:55, John 19:25)
  • those who were first given the Good News of the Resurrection: women (Mary Magdalene, the other Mary, and Salome and others — Mark 16:6, Matthew 28:6, Luke 24:1)
  • the first person to witness the Resurrected Christ: a woman (Mary Magdalen — Mark 16:9)
  • the first apostle: a woman (St. Photini the Samaritan Woman and Equal-to-the-Apstles — John 4:39)
  • the first European convert: a woman (St. Lydia — Acts 16:14-15)
A note: for an institution that is supposedly part of the patriarchal establishment, and that comes out of a culture where women are second class citizens, it is rather shocking, not only that so many key moments in Christ's ministry are witnessed by women, but that the early Church would admit it.

This makes me want to take stock of women in D&D. At first glance, the world of RPGs seems to be a male sport. Personally, I have only ever played in two groups that included women, and only one where the women playing weren't wives. When I look a little closer, however, I note that the game itself seems to encourage and acknowledge the concept of the female adventurer.

  • The example character for explaining character generation in Moldvay's Basic D&D is Morgan Ironwolf, who is not only female but played by a female.
  • AD&D has racial min/max ability scores for female characters.
  • Pre-rolled characters in modules often included females (including my own personal favorite, Elwita the dwarven fighter from the A-series).
  • Apendix N includes the female authors Leigh Brackett, Andre Norton, and Margaret St. Clair.
  • Module B3 was originally authored by Jean Wells (and, I might add, was much better than the Moldvay co-authored version that was eventually published).
  • I am sure there are plenty more examples...
Personally, one of the most formative role-playing experiences I had was playing a female character. It was my first "real" campaign where the DM was in college and several of our players were of high-school age. I played an evil illusionist and was encouraged by the DM to be as creative as I could be (all the while backing me up in my choices and defending me from other players who wanted to kill my character but could never justify why). This became the foundation of how I would play the game to this day and also taught me that ultimately evil characters aren't much fun and probably shouldn't be part of the game.

I am curious. What is your own experience with the feminine side of our hobby?


The Standard of St. Svetlana

This seemingly innocuous and tattered piece of cloth is actually a religious relic. When worn on the back as a battle standard in the Japanese fashion (see the battle sequences in the movie Ran) the Istinite blood drop holy symbol appears upon the cloth and glows with a warm yellow light in a 20' radius. The effective Charisma for determining the number of retainers and retainer morale is moved up one category (9-12 becomes 13-15 etc.). For those with 18 Charisma, they may have 8 retainers with a morale of 11.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Meditating on Monks

I have to admit that I really like monks — both the class and that arm of the Church that choses to take the monastic tonsure. This has to do both with the awe and wonder that I remember having when I was first introduced to the wonderful cinematic madness that comes out of Hong Kong as well as a deep seeded need for the ascetic disciplines of prayer that monastics are privileged to live out on a daily basis.

There is a strain of gamer that gnashes their teeth at the idea of the Hong-Kong-movie-influenced monk class crashing the medieval European party represented by the three core classes of D&D. I am not one of them. In fact, I have come to relish in an amalgam of the monk class and the monk who endeavors to follow St. Paul's dictum to pray without ceasing (1 Thess. 5:17).

Let me begin with a documentary that changed my mind about how we traditionally see and understand martial arts. It is called Reclaiming the Blade. Ostensibly, it is a documentary that examines role the sword plays in cinema; however, in doing so it reveals that the systematic martial arts that we normally only associate with Asia also existed in Europe. The difference is how these two cultures used gun powder. Whereas the East declined and even outlawed most military applications, the West embraced gun power as a way of making war. These two different approaches resulted in the continued use and lionization of martial hand-to-hand combat in the East and its increasing irrelevance in the West. Consequently, the Western martial arts were almost entirely lost.

Lest we forget, this Western tradition is ancient. The Greeks had the systemized unarmed combat style we know as Pankration. Alexander the Great took this with him as he conquered India. Shaolin Kung Fu is generally credited to an Indian Bhuddist monk often known as Boddhidharma. Thus, there is a link, though tenuous, between Western and Eastern martial arts.

In addition, if one reads the Life of St. Antony, we see the man who many consider to be the exemplar of monastics wrestling demons:

Thus tightening his hold upon himself, Antony departed to the tombs, which happened to be at a distance from the village; and having bid one of his acquaintances to bring him bread at intervals of many days, he entered one of the tombs, and the other having shut the door on him, he remained within alone. And when the enemy could not endure it . . . coming one night with a multitude of demons, he so cut him with stripes that he lay on the ground speechless from the excessive pain. For he affirmed that the torture had been so excessive that no blows inflicted by man could ever have caused him such torment . . . The next day his acquaintance came bringing him the loaves. And having opened the door and seeing him lying on the ground as though dead, he lifted him up and carried him to the church in the village, and laid him upon the ground. And many of his kinsfolk and the villagers sat around Antony as round a corpse. But about midnight he came to himself and arose, and when be saw them all asleep and his comrade alone watching, he motioned with his head for him to approach, and asked him to carry him again to the tombs without waking anybody.

In a fantasy world where sin is personified and monsters roam the wilderness, it is not a big leap to imagine that monastics (who live in and wander through the wilderness) would learn to use what God had given them — their body — as a primary weapon against these foes.

Thus, I happily populate my own Euro-inspired medieval fantasy world with monks and delight as they pray and punch their way through the wilderness making life safe for civilization.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Saintly Saturday: St. Philothei of Athens UPDATED

Updated: I fixed the map so that you can click on it and get a bigger version.

One of the saints celebrated today is St. Philothei of Athens. As a young teenager, she was forced against her will into a loveless and abusive marriage of political and economic convenience. After her husband and then her parents died, she was visited by the Apostle Andrew. Interpreting this vision as an order from God to build a convent dedicated to St. Peter's brother, she used her inheritance to make the vision a reality. She became a nun at the convent, though she was known to occasionally live as a hermit in a nearby cave. She became well known for her mercy and sympathy.

Her end came when, under the Ottomans, some Turkish rulers of Greece decided that the nuns at St. Philothei's convent were to become members of their harem. They refused and were martyred. Her relics, save for her missing skull, are still in Athens today.

I realize that the abandoned monastery as an entrance to a megadungeon has become a bit of a cliched trope of the OSR, but the life of St. Philothei just screams "Back Story!" for exactly this convention. Thus, I have been inspired to create The Convent of St. Andreas.

Built by the wealthy widow of an abusive marriage, St. Domnitza, the convent now stands abandoned at the edge of the wilderness where once civilization thrived. This location was chosen because of a vision she received from St. Andreas, for whom the convent is named. It is built in the form of the Istenite Wolf Hook, which has subsequently become an architectural norm for Istenite monasteries and convents. It sits atop the eastern side of a shallow mesa. The western edge is dotted with caves once used by nuns who chose to be hermits. The top of the mesa is covered in fertile soil that once was a lush garden tended by the nuns.

The monastery was abandoned after civilization lost its hold of the immediate territory in a war against Ulcib Bonebreaker, who briefly united several orc tribes under his banner (or, whatever is the most logical monster group that would have defeated civilization in the area the convent is placed). Most of the nuns, including St. Domnitza, were burned to death when the orc's attempts to capture them for breeding purposes failed.

For many years, the orcs used the monastery as a fortress and expanded both the catacombs and wine cellar below, until they dug too far and encountered something that brought an end to Ulcib Bonebreaker's rule.

Since then, adventurers have been exploring the area and have come back with treasure both monetary and religious. One such find were the relics of St. Domnitza herself; however, her skull is still missing.

There are two ways into the convent. There is the main entrance and a secret entrance into the wine cellar that was designed to be a means of escape in times of trouble. Unfortunately for the nuns, the orcs had discovered this secondary entrance during their attack. There are also several ways into the dungeon beneath:
  • The wine cellar
  • The catacombs
  • The well
  • The garbage pit (Room 1.15)
  • The hermit caves

Rumor Table (which may or may not be true)

  1. St. Andreas chose the site because it used to be a pagan place of worship and sacrifice.
  2. Ulcib Bonebreaker was able to unite the tribes because he wielded a powerful sword known only as "Slayer."
  3. St. Domnitza came from a very wealthy family and her husband was even richer. She only used a fraction of her fortune to build and maintain the convent.
  4. The burning ghosts of the nuns can be seen wondering both the convent and the dungeon beneath.
  5. The skull of St. Domnitza is a powerful relic that keeps some great evil beneath the convent at bay.
  6. Ulcib Bonebreaker awoke a sleeping dragon beneath the convent and met his doom.
  7. Ulcib Bonebreaker was never defeated by the armies of civilization. He just disappeared.
  8. An ancient city of some vile evil race sits somewhere beneath the convent.
  9. Though the orcs tried to destroy the statue of St. Andreas in the convent, it would always repair itself no matter what they did to it.
  10. The orcs were driven from the convent when the nuns came back as angry undead.
  11. Surviving members of St. Domnitza's family are willing to pay a very high price for family heirlooms recovered from the convent.
  12. The convent is currently being used by a group of (insert favorite low level monster here).


Ground Level

1.1 Entry Hall
1.2 Courtyard — Open air with well and Statue of St. Andreas
1.3 Chapel
1.4 Baptistry
1.5 Reliquary
1.6 Entrance to Catacombs
1.7 Registry
1.8 Stairs up
1.9 Copy Room
1.10 Library
1.11 Main Hall
1.12 Abbess' Office
1.13 Dining Hall
1.14 Kitchen
1.15 Garbage Room (connected to toilet above in 2.4)
1.16 Guard Room
1.17 Monastic Cell
1.18 Solitary Monastic Cell
1.19 Toilet
1.20 Stairs Down to Wine Cellar

Upper Level

2.1 Stairs Down
2.2 Balcony
2.3 Guest Room
2.4 Toilet

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Lost Colonies Session 32

This session began with a bunch of book keeping, introductions (for new and old players) and some catching up as we saw some folks return to the table after some absence. We found out that Pawnshee, our itinerant halfling, had gotten together with his cousins and started a cheese factory in Headwaters. This actually made Hamlen and Dn. Goram rather happy, because it meant more business for their parents (who own several milking animals, including a camel). Much fun was had at the expense of the camel, who was even interviewed using a Speak Animals spell.

Hamlen took advantage of the rules I put together for paladins as a subclass and this has allowed his brother to double his effortts to make sure Hamlin keeps to his vow of only using the magical hammer he found in the catacombs underneath the Monastery of St. Urheim. We also took advantage of Fedorsha's death and raising to experiment with the thief as a sub-class.

In addition, there is a new member of the party — Dn. Lucius. He has been sent by Bishop Iova to assist Dn. Goram in his quest to recover the Two Swords. The player deserves some kudos. He is a friend of our youngest player (Dn. Swibish) and took up the challenge of rolling his stats in order using only 3d6. Rather than complaining about his 3 Dexterity, he has chosen to see it as a challenge and is determined to see how long he can have his character survive and advance with such a handicap.

The adventuring began with preparations to go to the dwarves to the southwest. Dn. Goram bought a wagon full of cheese from the new factory to bring in trade (and possible tribute) to the dwarves. While the party did not get lost (they made sure they had good directions and were lucky on their rolls), they did have a couple of harrowing combats.

They were ambushed by some orcs under the banner of the Blighted Fist. This almost immediately went south for the players because in a surprise round, several players were hit by clay pots full of rot grubs and the attack happened during the day so no fire was ready. Fortunately, the party eventually figured out that Cure Disease would stop the grubs from burrowing into the heart and they had three party members who were able to cast it: Dn. Goram, Hamlen (with his new paladin abilities) and the NPC Orysus who also had paladin abilities. The time taken to deal with the grubs made them vulnerable to charge attacks, and things were rather dicey until the party members on giant eagles figured out what was going on and started in with a Lightening Bolt and some well placed Molotov Cocktails. Some time was taken to try and find the orc lair, but the morale of the prisoners proved to be too much. As an aside, one of the more entertaining bits of this encounter was a battle cry from Pawnshee — "No one insults a halfling's cheese and lives!"

After fighting off some lycanthropes and convincing a roc to hunt elsewhere, the party arrived at the mountain range that is home of the dwarves. The northern-most peak sparked some interest in the group, because it matched a map Akhmed had in his possession. The party was well aware of its existence, but never paid much attention to it. They quickly realized that the riddle on the map suggested a mirror was necessary to find the door to the dungeon the map was all about. No one had a mirror. A very funny argument ensued — "You mean you dragged us 7 days into the wilderness unprepared!? Seven days away from the nearest mirror!? I showed you map! I thought we had already solved the riddle!"

Thus, one of the goals for the rest of our session was to find a mirror. Using some spells, they eventually did find one, inside a monastery whose original occupants (dwarves) had been replaced by various species of apes. The session ended after a battle with a giant winged ape similar to one the party had fought earlier in the campaign. They found it protecting a hidden library which contained an eldritch tome. When they attempted to read it, they had the distinct feeling that the tome itself was resisting them. Finally, Ahkmed succeeded in determining that the tome included a pair of formulae that would allow for various biologicals (specifically severed limbs) to be preserved in a viscous liquid and another that would allow a dimension hop lasting about 4 hours.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Saintly Saturday: St. Meletius, Archbishop of Antioch

Today is the feast day of St. Meletius, Archbishop of Antioch. He lived during the 4th century, when Christological arguments swept across Christendom, threatening to pull the newly Christian Roman Empire apart. The most potent heresy was that of Arianism, which denied the full deity of the Son of God. When the Arian bishop of Antioch died, both the Arians and the Orthodox vied to get one of their own to become the next bishop. Metelius was very popular with both sides. Mistaking him to be like-minded, the Arians pushed for his elevation. They quickly realized their mistake, however, when Meletius immediately started to preach that the Son was of the same essence as the Father. Meletius lived until 381, when the Second Ecumenical Council was convened in Constantinople. He was so highly regarded that he was asked to preside over the council.

During the fourth century, there were several Roman Emperors who sided with the Arians over the Orthodox. So, when priests and bishops like Meletius staunchly defended the Orthodox position, they came into direct conflict with the head of the Roman Empire. Interestingly, these priests and bishops were not imprisoned, tortured, burned at the stake, executed, etc. The picture we have of the bloody conflicts among Christians, as we saw in Western Christendom after the Reformation, is the exception rather than the rule. Meletius was punished for defying the Emperor — with banishment. Over the course of his life, this happened three times.

This brings up an interesting background theme that could bring a lot of meat to the end-game of D&D. Given a typical sandbox campaign where the PCs are at the edge of the wilderness in order to explore and eventually tame that wilderness, a good motivation for the PCs and their NPC allies would be banishment. For theological and/or political reasons, they have been thrown out of the civilized world to the edge of the wilderness.

When PCs get to building their strongholds, this would bring them into direct conflict with those who banished them in the first place. Suddenly, the end-game of D&D becomes wonderfully geo-political and full of potential high-level adventure and conflict.

As a side note, given James' and Roger's recent musing on the subject, this also allows an interesting way to keep an old campaign current while going off and doing things with new PCs. When it comes to geo-political stuff, not every mission is appropriate for the high-level PC. Thus, entire campaigns could center around playing out missions for the high-level PCs with new, low-level characters. While players would be exploring new characters, the old high-level characters will be current and present through the background motivation for the on-going campaign (and, I should point out, return the game to a proper meaning of "campaign").

Friday, February 11, 2011

Fighting Gamer ADD with a Random Table

In recent weeks, a combination of weather, health and weddings have kept my group from gathering to play. During this hiatus, I became acutely aware of how frequent play is a good antidote for Gamer ADD. I found myself reading up on such things as Star Frontiers, Castles & Crusades, Swords & Wizardry Complete and even the A.D.D.I.C.T. document (which part of me seriously considered implementing!). I even was wowed by some 2ed tomes that I saw at a local used bookstore (though my rational self, pointing out that I would never use them, won the argument).

In order to combat these impulses, I have been doing more preparation than I normally do for the next scheduled session. At some point the party will be trudging through the wilderness in order to find the main dwarven city in the region, which has some vital information for Dn. Goram and his quest to find the Two Swords. Knowing how my players love to hunt down lairs, I decided to pre-roll several wilderness encounters in order to have them at the ready.

One of the things that I have made sure I do when prepping something like this, is to re-read old monster descriptions. They are full of wonderful nuggets of information that I somehow either have forgotten over the years or never read in the first place. For example, I love the association of Cloud Giants with Spotted Lions as well as Hobgobins with Carnivorous Apes. So, when I rolled up a rather innocuous encounter with some Orcs, I re-read the MM1 entry and found this little tid-bit:
Known orc tribes include the following: Vile Rune, Bloody Head, Death Moon, Broken Bone, Evil Eye, Leprous Hand, Rotting Eye, Dripping Blade. If orcs from one of those tribes are encountered in an area, it is likely that all other orcs nearby will also be from this tribe.
So, in order to keep me occupied for a short while (and to fight off more Gamer ADD), I came up with the following tables in order to generate random orc tribal names. Each name will have a Descriptor and a Noun:

Descriptor Table: Roll on the Following Sub-Table (d6)

1 Action
2 Color
3 Disease
4 Magical
5 Negative
6 Positive

Action Sub-Table (d6)

1 Crushing
2 Cutting
3 Dripping
4 Rotting
5 Slashing
6 Stabbing

Color Sub-Table (d6)

1 Black
2 Green
3 Orange
4 Purple
5 Red
6 Yellow

Disease Sub-Table (d6)

1 Blighted
2 Bloody
3 Leprous
4 Oozing
5 Scaly
6 Slimy

Magical Sub-Table (d6)

1 Dark
2 Demon
3 Devil
4 Dragon
5 Mutant
6 Wild

Negative Sub-Table (d6)

1 Bad
2 Broken
3 Death
4 Evil
5 Foul
6 Vile

Positive Sub-Table (d6)

1 Big
2 Bold
3 Brazen
4 Defiant
5 Striking
6 Strong

Noun Table: Roll on the Following Sub-Table (d6)

1-2 Body Part
3-4 Magic
5-6 Weapon

Body Part Sub-Table (d6)

1 Bone
2 Eye
3 Fist
4 Hand
5 Head
6 Horn

Magic Sub-Table (d6)

1 Earth
2 Fire
3 Flame
4 Moon
5 Rune
6 Sun

Weapon Sub-Table (d6)

1 Arrow
2 Axe
3 Blade
4 Knife
5 Spear
6 Sword
All that to come up with the name Blighted Fist for a random encounter...

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Saintly Saturday: St. Agatha the Virgin Martyr

Today is the Feast of St. Agatha the Virgin Martyr who was killed brutally in 251 in Catania in Sicily. One of the most widely venerated virgin martyrs in Western Christendom, she is famous for saving the city that killed her. When she finally died after being viciously tortured (accounts include fire and the removal of her breasts) an angel placed a stone on her grave with this prophecy:
A righteous mind, self-determining, honor from God, the deliverance of her father-land.
This was fulfilled when, through her prayers, Catania was spared from a violent eruption of the volcano Mt. Etna.

This week I have been trying to put together a (bad) illustration of what this might look like in a fantasy version of Catania, where a wave of lava is held back by prayer and now stands as a stone wall that reminds everyone of the miracle that saved the city: