Saturday, August 18, 2012

Saintly Saturday: St. John of Rila

Today is the Feast of St. John of Rila. He is a 9th-10th century monastic of Bulgaria and considered to be the country’s great spiritual ascetic and protector. His life follows a pattern found in many ascetic saints.

Born in a village in the region of what is now Sofia, he was orphaned as a boy. He became a cowherd in hire of a cruel man. It was here that he learned to pray. After being beaten for losing a cow and her calf, he called to God for help. He found the two separated by a raging river. After placing his tattered shirt on the water, he was able to walk on the water in order to save the calf. His master saw this miracle and rewarded John, but being afraid sent him away.

St. John then wandered the wilderness. At first, he lived in a hut, but was driven away by robbers. Later, he lived in a deep cave. He became known for miracle working.

Finally, the monastic feats of St. John began to spread far and wide and he began to attract followers. They built a monastery where St. John was abbot until he died in A.D. 946.

In other words, there is a period where the monastic has some form of patronage — whether as a slave, servant or pupil. Then the monk wanders the wilderness. Finally, followers come and a monastery is built.

Note that this pattern is very similar to the three stages of a D&D character. Lower levels stick close to a home base as they dungeon delve. At mid-levels they explore the wilderness. At high levels, a piece of wilderness is cleared to make way for a stronghold and the attraction of followers. This is also a pattern implied by an understanding of Law vs. Chaos being (Christian) Civilization vs. (Demonic) Wilderness.

I have argued before that adventuring parties can be seen as metaphors for this very monastic pattern; however, there is no real character class that is representative of the Christian monastic tradition. Clerics come the closest, but these are much more akin to what modern gamers see as the holy warrior/paladin than a contemplative monk.

As I mentioned in my last post, there was a moment in the history of the game where such a class was at least being contemplated. I believe that such a class would work in a world where sin is personified by monsters. The issue is figuring out how to differentiate it from a cleric while still making it interesting to play.


  1. Always take inspiration from St. Anthony (whence my confirmation name).

    It is an interesting question about how to create less-warrior religious adventurers. I've often been a bit disappointed in the cleric's extensively martial qualities. And, while it may be a matter of taste, the Vancian "pack your spell slots full" style of magic seems an odd fit for more mystic religious characters, whatever their tradition.

    But how else to structure a character of this sort? Two possible avenues occur to me, though both are breaks from traditional D&D mechanics:

    Sacrifice - The denial of self or sacrifice of bodily needs in favor of focus on the divine seems a common enough theme. How about this:

    Ascetic: Minimal attack, minimal hit dice. Character may use any spells from the cleric list (or a culled version as appropriate for their denomination). Spells are cast by sacrificing one's own HP. HP may be sacrificed by fasting or other deprivation, willingly being struck by enemy blows, or possibly self-flagellation. Possibly also temporary STR or CON loss may be endured as an alternative to HP loss.

    Each HP sacrificed in this manner enters a special pool and may be used to cast 1 level worth of spells without prior memorization. Healing other than through natural means negates an equal amount of the sacrifice HP stored in the pool.

    Vision - Faith opens the eyes to see the hidden opportunities to serve God at any given moment in time, including the more miraculous ones:

    Mystic: Similar to the Ascetic except regarding working spells.

    By taking a moment to spiritually reflect, the Mystic may attempt to gain insight into possible opportunities for extraordinary actions made clear to them through faith. But due to the discord between human spirit and God's will, performing miracles is not always possible.

    Similarly the Mystic may be searching for some powerful option, when the Almighty knows that a less grand revelation (or none) would be better.

    Roll 1d20 + (Mystic level /2) + Wisdom Modifier

    Roll :: Result
    <=10 (or natural 1) :: No spell cast.
    11 :: Choose any 1st level spell to cast.
    12 :: Choose any 2nd level spell to cast.
    13 :: Choose any 3rd level spell to cast.
    >=20 :: Choose any spell to cast.

    (Inspired by Jeff's thing.)

    1. While I think both of these have a lot of merit (especially the one based on sacrifice) I don't know how much fun either one would be to play. The first doesn't have a great chance of survival and the second has the real possibility of slowing down play (oooh, I get a 3rd level spell? Which one am I going to use?)

  2. Clearly, there is a historical distinction between clerical or magician based spell craft.
    PRIOR to the papal inquisition and the Renaissance (15+ century), magic was seen as a natural force under the dominion of God. Harmful magic was a crime prosecuted under SECULAR courts and not necessarily demonic in its origins.
    . .
    Other forms of magic (alchemy, healing, fortune telling, etc.) were often practiced openly and tolerated . . . .
    Two Examples:
    Agrippa who wrote one of the seminal texts on ceremonial magic was a physician and a devout Christian.
    Born in 1365 AD, the medieval author Christine de Pizan was the daughter of the court physician / astrologer for the Christian King of France.
    For a more scholarly and lengthy treatise/ lectures,
    I defer to the Late Middle Ages by Phillip Daileader

    1. Indeed, the Church Fathers use what we today call science all the time to make dogmatic illustrations and arguments. If I remember correctly, Clement even uses the example of the phoenix to illustrate the resurrection.

  3. Interesting.

    IIRC, to thus day the Roman Catholic catechism makes some distinction between magic as a demonic force and "natural magic". Natural magic apparently being strange arts simply empowered by an understanding of the universe out of pace with the surrounding culture.

  4. . . .
    It was confessions obtained (many thru torture) during the papal inquisition that prompted the movement of the jurisdiction of harmful magic (i.e., witchcraft) FROM secular TO church courts.
    . .. .
    There was a distinction in the High Middle Ages (11 -13th century) between naturalistic or magical based healing / knowledge than divine healing / knowledge.
    Actually most magic of the time was concerned with mundane disciplines such as crop growth, romance, animal husbandry, child bearing, weather prediction, etc..
    . .
    Recall the scientific method was not invented until the 16th -17th century, many credit this to Sir Francis Bacon. Hence, early scientists would be classified as magicians in the medieval nomenclature..

    It is peculiarity to modern man that both science and theology accomplish the same things. Sir Issac Newton had no problem mingling a devote faith with rational , scientific investigation.
    . . .
    First Corinthians, Chapter 8:5- 6
    "Indeed, even though there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth — as in fact there are many gods and many lords — yet for us there is one God (Gk. theos - θεος), the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord (kyrios - κυριος), Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist."

    1. I quibble with the modern understanding of science as being equivalent to theology. They don't ask the same questions and science (especially if one adheres to the scientific method) cannot answer the questions that theology asks.

  5. I think that a new class is justified if it solves problems in a significantly different way than existing classes. So, how might a monastic solve problems, and is it different enough from combat (the fighter), spells (the magic-user), conviction (the cleric; primarily embodied in the "turn" mechanic, but also serving as a secondary fighter and caster), or cleverness (the thief).

    Perhaps something having to do with absorbing and converting sin? A way to use monster power against them?