Saturday, January 28, 2012

Saintly Saturday: St. Ephrem the Syrian

Today is the feast of St. Ephrem the Syrian. He was born in Nisibis about the year A.D. 306. In his youth he was a disciple of St. James, Bishop of Nisibis who was one of the Fathers of the First Ecumenical Council. Around A.D. 363 he was forced to flee his home in the wake of the death of Julian the Apostate. When the pagan emperor died fighting the Persians, they were able to conquer Nisibis. St. Ephrem settled in Edessa where he flowered as a poet and a hymnographer.

At the time, a form of Gnosticism preached by Bardaisan was very popular in Edessa. Much of this popularity was due to Bardaisan’s skill with hymns, which became very fashionable. St. Ephrem set about writing a multitude of hymns with correct Christian dogma to combat the gnosticism of Bardaisan. Interestingly, they were meant to be sung by women. His writing became so popular that it was translated into Greek from the original Syriac.

Eventually he came to be known as The Harp of the Holy Spirit. His prayers and hymns influenced later hymnographers and are still used today. The most readily recognizable prayer for Orthodox Christians is the following, because it is a central prayer in our Lenten services:
O Lord and Master of my life!

Take from me the spirit of sloth,
faint-heartedness, lust of power, and idle talk.

But give rather the spirit of chastity,
humility, patience, and love to Thy servant.

Yea, Lord and King! Grant me to see my own errors
and not to judge my brother,
for Thou art blessed unto ages of ages. Amen.

There are two things that suggest themselves to me through St. Ephraim:

  1. Firstly, he wrote in Syriac. This might surprise some, but Syriac is a very important language in Christianity, particularly in the East. In fact, it is arguable that it is as, if not more, influential than Latin. I mention this, because one of the things that has emerged from my Lost Colonies campaign is the relative importance of Goblin. Besides Common, there is no other language that has had a greater impact on the campaign — something not lost on my players. Intellectually, I might be tempted to have Elvish or (to borrow from the 3e era) Celestial, Draconic or even Abyssal a centrally important language. These (at least to me) are the fantasy equivalents of Greek and Latin. The importance of Syriac in Christianity, however, suggests that we can throw a curveball in our campaign worlds where languages like Goblin can be just as, if not more, important.
  2. Secondly, St. Ephrem, being a hymnographer, brings up that old bug-a-boo the bard. Roger of Roles, Rules & Rolls has a very nice iteration of the bard as a hireling. This has me thinking. The influence of St. Ephrem was not in his singing or his performance. Rather, it was from other people learning and singing his hymns. To put it in another context, drinking songs and school fight songs do not depend upon their performance, but rather in the very strong emotions that they give those who know and participate in singing them (however badly). This suggests that mechanical effects normally associated with bards need not actually need a bard to be present. Rather, players can attempt to get their exploits popularized by song. Base price can be 50-100gp with a base chance of success derived from Charisma. Extra cash can be spent to increase the chance of success. That success represents the tune, the song and the exploit becoming popularized enough that anyone singing/reciting it will induce an emotional response. Mechanically, this can be played out as simple battle cries such as Remember the Alamo! or Spoon! When appropriate, the Referee can make something like a Morale Check for the party. If successful, the battle cry based upon the successful song can give the party a +1 to hit, AC or damage for the battle. Of course, this is entirely dependent upon the whim of the Referee — but this prevents such things from being overused or abused.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Map: Manor House

I have been re-tooling some of my work on my version of the Chateau des Faussesflammes, concentrating primarily on the ruins that are above the dungeons below. The first step I took was to make a map of the Chateau (which is really a manor house) prior to its ruination. This way I can make various adjustments, depending on when the Chateau is entered.

This manor house sits atop a hill. The stairs lead up to the front terrace and there is a ramp leading up to the back terrace. The fortifications (including the barracks at the front and the towers at the back) are later additions. Originally built during a time of stability and peace, the fortifications became necessary as the Merovingian dynasty declined from its apex. Though it adapted an already existing space, the chapel is also a later addition, after the line adopted Christianity.

Here is the map itself:

Here is a rough key:
  1. Entrance Hall
  2. Inner Court/Garden
  3. Sitting Room
  4. Music Room
  5. Storage
  6. Kitchen
  7. Storage
  8. Servant's Dining Room
  9. Servant's Foyer
  10. Powder Room
  11. Sitting Room
  12. Great Hall
  13. Gallery
  14. Trophy Room
  15. Dancing Room
  16. Dancing Room
  17. Dining Hall
  18. Storage
  19. Trophy Room
  20. Coat Room
  21. Storage
  22. Gallery
  23. Dining Hall
  24. Storage
  25. Trophy Room
  26. Coat Room
  27. Gallery
  28. Study
  29. Sitting Room
  30. Changing Room
  31. Training Room
  32. Changing Room
  33. Sitting Room
  34. Reception Room
  35. Study
  36. Narthex
  37. Chapel; a=Vestry
  38. Reception Room
  39. Study
  40. Reading Room
  41. Library
  42. Secret Study
  43. Front Terrace (protected by a portcullis)
  44. Back Terrace
  45. Tower
  46. Entrance Ramp
  47. Barracks; a=Soldier's Quarters; b=NCO Quarters; c=Officer's Quarters; e=Guard Room
Stairs labelled with 'd' go down and those with 'u' go up.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Saintly Saturday: Panagia Paramythea

The name Panagia Paramythea (roughly translated as All-Holy Comforter) refers to a miraculous icon of the Virgin Mary found on Mt. Athos at the Vatopedi monastery. It is differentiated from the most common icon of the Virgin Mary because rather than looking towards the viewer’s right and having the Christ child blessing, as in this icon:

the Virgin is looking to the viewer’s left and is pulling the Christ child’s hand away from her mouth:

On January 21, 807 pirates had secretly landed on shore near the monastery. In hiding, they were waiting for the gates to open in the morning to launch an attack. The abbot, alone in prayer in the chapel where the icon was heard the Virgin Mary warn him of the impending attack:
Do not open the gates today, but go up on the walls and drive away the pirates.
Looking up at the icon, from where he heard the voice, he saw that the Virgin had turned her head toward him and the Christ child was reaching up to cover her mouth (the icon originally looked like the first icon above). Christ then spoke:
No, Mother, do not watch over this sinful flock, let them fall under the swords of the pirates and be punished as they deserve.
The Virgin then reached up and pulled Christ’s hand from her mouth to repeat her warning. The monks, thus forewarned, were able to repel the pirates and the icon has remained as seen above in the second icon ever since.

This is another feast that is personal to me, because I have spent time at Vatopedi and I have seen this icon with my own eyes. Today it has been given a protective, silver cover but one can still see the faces of both the Virgin and Christ as they were when this miracle happened in A.D. 807.

From a theological point of view, this icon and others that have similarly changed from their original form, reinforce what Orthodox Christianity believes about icons — they are the personal presence of Christ and the saints depicted. The Virgin and Christ could speak through the icon because they are personally present through the icon.

In context of my musings this past week on the Mythical Underworld and Mythical Geography, this particular icon demonstrates that, at least within a Christian context, the ever changing nature of the The Dungeon need not be malicious. As levels and sub-levels are cleared, positive transformations can come upon those areas explored. It also demonstrates that Sword & Sorcery, Horror and Weird Fantasy do not have a monopoly on the weird.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Okay WotC, You Officially Have My Attention

I have to say that I am very pleasantly surprised by the news that WotC will be re-releasing the AD&D core books in April. Unfortunately, it is a limited print run that is only available through local game stores here in North America. This means I may very well be unable to give WotC money for one of their products for the first time in over a decade. The closest game store to me is over an hour away and with my commitments to both family and career that means making a special trip, something I cannot guarantee.

Personally, I hope that there are plenty of others that can purchase these, if only to prove that there is a demand for items in the D&D library that have long been out of print. I say this in hopes that the hobby will see WotC roll out other items in that library that I would make a special trip for. As others have suggested, I would love to see compilations of modules.

To be honest, my enthusiasm for this news is somewhat curbed by the choice of what to re-release. I do not play AD&D with any consistency when compared to those editions that came with soft covers. I still own good copies of all three AD&D core books and have no burning need to spend that kind of money for second (if brand new) copies. My various copies of those soft cover editions, however, are not in nearly as good a shape. As much as I love the various retro-clones (especially LL), I am always going back to the original B/X, Holmes and OD&D rulebooks to look at art, muse about original rules and otherwise wish that they were in good enough condition to regularly bring them to the table. For the purposes of giving the Hobby as a whole a tremendous gift, I hope these softcover editions could see their own re-release with hard covers to help preserve them for generations to come. One can hope. I would also be remiss if I didn't mention pdfs...

Having said that, I greatly appreciate why WotC chose the AD&D core books. They don't need to reformat, they closely mimic the WotC core book model (PH, MM, DMG) and of all the various editions to re-release, they can make the most money off of these three books.

In the meantime, I am now paying attention to what WotC is doing — something that I didn't believe would ever happen. Lets hope that this good will and good news continues.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Lazy Post — 23 Questions

A couple of folks have chimed in with their answers, so here are mine:

1. If you had to pick a single invention in a game you were most proud of what would it be?
That boring Sword +1 might just be an elf of the Winter Court trying to escape mortality.

2. When was the last time you GMed?

3. When was the last time you played?
Last Saturday.

4. Give us a one-sentence pitch for an adventure you haven't run but would like to.
The Brainlashers need your help — the great machine that kept their inter-dimensional uber-gate from tearing giant holes in time and space has been destroyed.

5. What do you do while you wait for players to do things?
I usually chime in with what the NPC henchmen and followers think about the situation.

6. What, if anything, do you eat while you play?
Somebody will usually show up with leftovers, cookies or pizza.

7. Do you find GMing physically exhausting?
Physically, no. Mentally, Yes. There have been plenty of times when I have come into the game physically exhausted and I haven’t noticed a difference in how I feel physically, but having to improvise always takes its mental toll.

8. What was the last interesting (to you, anyway) thing you remember a PC you were running doing?
Talking with what every other character thought was a god while insisting that it was merely an angel at best and a demon at worst. (I survived too!)

9. Do your players take your serious setting and make it unserious? Vice versa? Neither?
No, all my players like to immerse themselves into the reality of the world. We tend to be goofy out of game.

10. What do you do with goblins?
In the Lost Colonies, goblins are creatures who desperately feel the need to attach themselves to some creature more powerful than they are. They understand themselves to be so pathetic that unless they have something like an ogre, troll or dragon to “back them up” they have no courage what so ever.

11. What was the last non-RPG thing you saw that you converted into game material (background, setting, trap, etc.)?
A painting by Romanian artist Sever Frentiu.

12. What's the funniest table moment you can remember right now?
The Halfling war cry: No one insults a Halfling’s cheese and lives!

13. What was the last game book you looked at--aside from things you referenced in a game--why were you looking at it?
Mr. Stater’s Pars Fortuna has a simplified version of feats called boons. I wanted to use them as an inspiration for my own musings about feats.

14. Who's your idea of the perfect RPG illustrator?
Anyone who is willing to do their stuff in B&W.

15. Does your game ever make your players genuinely afraid?
Yes. I gleefully play up those things that creep out my players and am quite guilty of having creatures crawling around my worlds that PCs have no business messing with.

16. What was the best time you ever had running an adventure you didn't write? (If ever)
Roshia’s Gauntlet by Dave Dollar. It is an independently published funhouse adventure from back in the day that has a specific goal — seeing if the characters are worthy to have a powerful wizard as a patron.

17. What would be the ideal physical set up to run a game in?
I’d love to game in a high-ceiling room with lots of natural light with everyone comfortably ensconced in big fluffy sofas and chairs.

18. If you had to think of the two most disparate games or game products that you like what would they be?
Empire Builder (Mayfair’s Railroad simulation board game) and GURPS Traveller.

19. If you had to think of the most disparate influences overall on your game, what would they be?
The Bible and HPL.

20. As a GM, what kind of player do you want at your table?
The kind who is unafraid to be wildly creative.

21. What's a real life experience you've translated into game terms?
I've used my time on Mt. Athos to translate both the monastic lifestyle and the physical properties of the monasteries themselves into my games.

22. Is there an RPG product that you wish existed but doesn't?
No. There are so many wildly awesome products out today that far surpass my own idea of the possible that for me to wish for anything else would be disingenuous.

23. Is there anyone you know who you talk about RPGs with who doesn't play? How do those conversations go?
Not really. I think this is one of the reasons I blog — it gives me an outlet to geek out that I would otherwise not have.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Old School Feats

Forgive me, but I just cannot find the original quote that inspired this post. Someone, somewhere observed that 1e, with its insistence on high stats in order to “not suck” was the first (and only?) edition to cater to those who want to do character builds (because all of the various methods for rolling up characters in the DMG all end up there) as well as those who want the dice to roll where they will and play with it.

Since I play with both kinds of players, this got me thinking about ways to update this characteristic of 1e so as to be able to scratch the character build itch without affecting either the streamlined nature of old school play or the ability to let the dice roll and play whatever comes up.

In order for this to work, every characteristic needs to have a combat bonus/penalty associated with it. I postulated something along these lines here. These, of course, would affect all classes.

Then, there would be a series of feat-like bonuses attached to each characteristic depending upon class. Players would be able to pick one or two of these feats, the effectiveness of which would be tied to the characteristic. Thus, they can only be taken advantage of if the characteristic has a bonus.

For example, here is a rough draft for feat-like abilities that can be associated with the B/X; LL magic-user:

  • Str = 1, 2 or 3 spells cast per day by the magic user have their durations doubled.
  • Dex = 1, 2 or 3 spells cast per day by the magic-user with an area effect have that area doubled.
  • Con = The magic-user may use 1, 2 or 3 weapons or armor chosen at character creation that they are not normally able to use. In the case of armor, leather must be chosen first and chainmail is the heaviest armor a magic-user can wear and be able to cast spells.
  • Int = 1, 2 or 3 spells per day with variable effects cast by the magic user have maximum effect.
  • Wis = The magic-user can store 1, 2 or 3 spells that can be spontaneously cast in place of a memorized spell of equal or greater spell level per day.
  • Cha = 1, 2 or 3 spells per day cast by the magic user require two successful saving throws to save versus the spell.

This could be done with every class. Assuming that a typical character has two characteristics with bonuses, there is a huge range of options combining combat bonuses with feat-like abilities, thus offering plenty of different character builds per class for those that like to scratch that itch. It also gives more variety of surprise for those who like their characters to be random. Finally, these feat-like abilities can be tailored to campaign-worlds if Referee so desires.


Monday, January 16, 2012

Some Under-Appreciated Mythical Geography

Last month, Beedo of Dreams of the Lich House mused about Mythic Geography for FRPG settings. I have been meaning to muse myself on the subject, but life has delayed this endeavor until now.

Several of the examples that Beedo uses to make his point are (of course) from mythology — especially those most readily familiar like those of the Greeks and the Norse. As evocative as those might be, I think a particularly useful and suggestive mythical geography that gets discounted either out of hand or out of ignorance is that of the Old Testament. Take a look at this popular imagining of OT cosmology:

Note that it is easy to see with this image how both Tolkien's Undying Lands and Lloyd Alexander's Summer Lands can be reached by the right kind of sailing ship — sail the Waters above the Firmament and you might reach the Heavens.

These same waters might be used to sail to the stars and the planets surrounding them. One might have to climb the Pillars of Heaven to set sail, however. The Underworld is well represented by Sheol; however, there is a secondary, potentially more frightening area — the Abyss. What strange creatures lie within the waters at the bottom of the Pillars of the Earth? 

For those that wish to follow in Beedo's footsteps and expand the Mythic beyond The Dungeon, I invite you to consider the imaginings of the writers of the Old Testament. You might be surprised at how rich an imagination it is.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Saintly Saturday: The Holy Fathers slain at Sinai and Raitho

Today is the feast of the Holy Fathers slain at Sinai and Raitho, which are a pair of monasteries in the Sinai Peninsula. This feast actually remembers two separate events where monks were slaughtered by nomadic tribes. One massacre happened at the end of the fourth century and the other occurred in the middle of the fifth century.

This feast is very personal to me. In the ancient church, one of the primary places that Christians would gather to worship was around the grave sites of saints — particularly the martyrs. During those periods where it was legal for them to build churches, they often did so where they had worshipped — over the relics of the saints. This is where the tradition of naming church buildings after saints comes from. In order to keep a connection to this practice, the Orthodox Church places relics of a saint within the altar table at the consecration of a church. I have only had the privilege of taking part in one consecration. The relics of one of the Fathers of Sinai and Raitho was placed in the altar — an altar at which I worshipped for many years.

What I find interesting about this feast is that the hymnody plays up a thematic trope that lies very close to the heart of D&D and the pulp fantasy that inspired it — Civilization versus the Wilderness:
Greatly did you struggle, O Saints of God: while courageously enduring the barbarians’ attacks, you laid down your very lives with eager zeal before their swords... — From the Stichera of Vespers

The desert you made a city through devotion to God… — From the Kathisma of Matins
Thus, Civilization is personified by the monks and the Wilderness not only by the violence of the barbarians, but also by the desert in which the monks built their monasteries.

In the geography of Genesis, the Tree of Life is at the center of a fenced garden which lies in the middle of a plain (Eden). Across from Eden lies the Wilderness (Nod). In the Wilderness demons reside — one interpretation of the scapegoat (literally for Azazel) in Leviticus 16:8 is that it is sent out into the desert where the demon Azazel lives to be devoured.

The Greek word for wilderness and desert is έρημος which literally means a desolate and lonely place. It is the root for both hermit and eremitic — that type of monasticism practiced by hermits. Thematically, therefore, monastics are Christian adventurers who go out into the Wilderness to fight the monsters that live there. The monasteries that they build are akin to the Keep on the Borderlands — outposts of civilization.

Both monastics and the typical D&D adventurer represent the people who have the requisite temperament and skills to make the Wilderness safe for the rest of us. They are the ragtag front line that take the fight to the dangers that live just across the way in the Land of Nod.

In other words, the classic pattern of D&D where parties of adventures go deep underground or out into the lands dominated by beings of evil and Chaos is a metaphor for the monastic endeavor of living in the desert, because monasticism — seen in terms of the geography of Genesis — is a metaphor for Civilization vs. the Wilderness.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Meditating on The Mythic Underground

One of the more interesting aspects of OD&D, as interpreted by various corners of the OSR, is its portrayal of the Dungeon as the Mythic Underworld. For those unfamiliar with this particular theme I suggest Philotomy’s musings on the subject here. I, myself, have played with this interpretation in my own musings about the Holmes Basic Edition here and here.

In the classic mythological trope, the hero finds it necessary to descend into the Underworld in order to obtain something vital in order to achieve their overall quest. This could be information, an item, a skill or even a person. The hero emerges, changed and readied to take on the rest of their quest.

D&D (particularly in its B/X form) emulates this trope very well. The early levels of character development occur primarily in the Dungeon, where they obtain magic items, maps and experience. Once they reach 4th level or so, the characters emerge ready to take on the rest of their quest — explore and tame the Wilderness in order to build a stronghold.

I mention this, especially my own musing on the Holmesian version of the Dungeon (an ever-changing and unconquerable place that is almost a character unto itself), because Christianity takes this classic tale of the hero and turns it on its ear. Christ — the hero figure of the Christian story — does not descend into the Underworld in order to gain some special object or skill. He descends into the Underworld in order to conquer.

Greek Shorthand for Christ Conquers

For He crushed the gates of bronze and shattered the bars of iron — Psalm 107:16 (cf. Isaiah 45:2) 
For as Jonah remained in the belly of the sea-monster for three days and three nights, so will the Son of man be in the heart of the earth for three day and three nights. — Matthew 20:14 
In the body He was put to death, in the spirit he was raised to life, and, in the spirit, he went to preach to the spirits in prison. — 1Peter 3:18-19
In other words, the implied pattern of dungeon-delving in context of the Christian story is not just exploration, but restoration. This flies in the face of the Mythic Underground as understood by Philotomy and my own understanding of the Dungeon in Holmes.

Given that I am very interested in a Holmesian Underworld as well as playing in a Christian context, I have been trying to meditate on how to reconcile these two divergent views of the Hero and the Underworld. Part of my thinking in this direction is inspired by the general move that the OSR has made in recent months toward the Weird.

In a world where the Dungeon is a semi-intelligent and ever-changing NPC (Holmes), it makes sense to understand that part of this change can be imposed. What if, when a level or a sub-level of a dungeon were cleared (and thus restored) or otherwise "rescued" that it physically moved from the underworld to the surface world? In context of a dungeon beneath a city, these dungeon levels could be additional neighborhoods that spring up. In context of a dungeon in the wilderness, the levels could be ruins restored to full functionality. The more of the dungeon that is restored, the more Civilization takes root and the more Wilderness (whether on the surface or in the underworld) retreats.

The Dungeon would then change in response to the foray by the adventurers. Either the next level could "move up" or another level or sub-level could spring up in its place. Thus, the semi-intelligent and ever-changing Dungeon of Holmes can actually play a vital role in the context of the Christian hero story.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Meditating on Pathfinder

Since the Big News of the day is the advent of 5e D&D, I thought I’d buck the trend and speak about one of the reasons why Hasbro has been forced in this particular direction in the first place — Pathfinder. (Besides which, Jeff Rients pretty much sums up everything I might say on the subject with his open letter to WotC).

As I have said several time before, I play with a bunch of guys who were introduced to the hobby via 3e. I have split time running campaigns with other guys, depending on who has an itch to run a game. When I first began doing this, the other campaigns we played were 3.5 games. More recently, these games have been 1st ed AD&D. Well, a couple of the guys from our group have been getting the urge to go back to their roots and play a little 3.5.

For the most part, the group wasn’t all that interested. Our table very much likes the fast-paced combat achievable with earlier editions. The amount of stuff that can be accomplished in an evening of gaming using LL or AD&D far outstrips what we did while using 3.5. Thus, the whole discussion was a bit of a non-starter. That is, until someone brought up the possibility of playing Pathfinder using the Kingmaker Adventure Path.

I happen to really like Paizo, their attitude and their relationship they have with the community. I even gave my two cents during the open play test of Pathfinder. Thus, though I have never had occasion to purchase any of their products, I have rooted for them. The closest I ever came to actually forking over part of my limited gaming budget to them was when they published the Kingmaker Adventure Path. It intrigued me to no end — I wanted to see how one would go about doing a sandbox with a complex ruleset like Pathfinder.

So, when one of our guys volunteered to run it, I was actually very interested to see what would happen. Due to life issues, we decided to take a short break from my own campaign to take advantage of my own relatively busy schedule in December and his own relatively light schedule to go all in for the last month with Pathfinder.

The campaign has been relatively successful. Pathfinder does all the things 3.5 does well better. I say this with one caveat. Having had experienced the abstract combat style of LL, our GM has adopted several of the conventions that we use while playing LL. This speeds things up considerably and still allows for some crunch for those that want it (and who needs to pull out maps and figures for most wilderness encounters anyway?) In addition, our GM adjudicates all skill rolls — he either rolls them himself or simply arbitrarily declares success. This has had the wonderful side affect of encouraging more role playing than roll playing.

Unfortunately, Pathfinder still suffers from many of the flaws that 3.5 does. Personally, I would not wish to invest the kind of time necessary to ever run a Pathfinder campaign. In addition, we have averaged one character death per session (something we have grown accustomed to with older editions). The problem is that even when a player knows what they are doing, creating a new character takes forever. We have alleviated this a bit by having NPCs available to play. This strategy, while fine with old-school guys like myself, defeats one of the reasons why some of our group (and a whole segment of gamers) like to play 3.5 & Pathfinder— testing character builds against game conditions.

If I am honest, I can greatly sympathize with this particular mindset because I have spent many an hour doing various kinds of builds to test in game play. The major difference between my own gaming experience and those who enjoy this aspect of 3.5/Pathfinder play is that the major outlet I have had over my gaming life has been through various war games.

Car Wars, Starmada, ARES and Renegade Legion (Interceptor) among others are all games that I spent lots of time making builds and then testing them in game play. I did the same with two what are ostensibly RPGs but more often than not my friends and I used with arena combat scenarios to test character builds — Champions and GURPS. The most common scenario my friends and I ran with Champions was the Danger Room — which is, in essence, a war game. The only original version of GURPS I still own is its precursor Man to Man — an arena-type war game that uses what would become the GURPS combat system.

Thus, that occasional itch to make what in 3.5/Pathfinder are character builds I scratch with war games or RPGs that can be played as war games. It makes me wonder if the cultural divide between 3.5/4th ed players and earlier edition players is in part a generational thing. Guys my age grew up with war games — I had certainly played several different war games prior to ever hearing about D&D. The guys I now play with are all young enough that what I had readily available as board and mini-games had all been displaced by video games. With no real outlet other than RPGs to scratch that character-build itch, is 3+ D&D for many gamers today what war games are/were for me?

In the end, I very much enjoy the campaign; however, if your goal is to play Pathfinder in an old-school style, old school rules do a much better job without all the negatives the complex rules bring with it. Kingmaker is fun, but if I ever ran it myself, I would convert it to LL + AEC in a heart beat.

Cults of Averoigne Part 3

The last group of cultists that will populate my version of Averoigne are not inspired by history, but rather by sci-fi and fantasy. Though this cult will be far less prevalent than the other two, it may very well be the most dangerous, because they see themselves as the servants of the Old Ones (do you think I wouldn’t figure out a way in which to pay homage to CAS and HPL?)

Before I go any further, though, I do need to explain a bit about my comic book reading habits (trust me, it will make sense in the end). I am neither a huge comic book fan nor much of a collector; however, there were a couple of periods in my life when I did actively buy and read comic books. I tend to be more of a DC kinda guy than a Marvel guy. This largely has to do with the fact that during those times I was buying and reading, DC was putting out a superior product. I came to this conclusion despite the fact that all of my comic book reading friends insisted that Marvel was better.

This anti-Marvel prejudice was solidified when the comic book giant came out with a bunch of new titles. A few of them really inspired my friends, so I selectively gave a few a try. I had to admit, some of the ideas behind the books were indeed rather awesome. Then original writers and artists were dumped from the book to go on to more important titles and these various cool ideas were systemically destroyed by incompetence, indifference and an emphasis on stories that required the purchase of several books I had zero desire to ever read, let alone pay for.

This was many years ago and my copies are long gone as are my memories of the titles, characters, artists, writers etc. A cursory Google search turned up nothing but the inherent prejudice of the internet for the current, new and now. All that remains is the cool idea that inspired my favorite of these comics.

The book centered on a group of mercenaries that travelled through dimensions/time/space in order to procure technologies that could then be reverse engineered and developed for the company that sent the mercs out on their various missions. The potential for this beautiful nugget is endless — especially for serialized storytelling like comic books.

This nugget of an idea forms the basic premise of the cult of the Old Ones. A couple of weeks ago, I posited an idea about how arcane magic slowly rips apart space and time. These holes can become large enough to let in things from different eras both past and present.

The cult of the Old Ones actively tries to create and find these holes. Cultists come in two different flavors (or some combination thereof):

  • Those that seek to find power and riches by raiding different time periods of their magic and technology.
  • Those that seek to find that point in time either in the distant past or the distant future where the Old Ones are awake and active so that they can come through the hole in space and time to wreck havoc on Averoigne and the world.

Thus, these cultists are, in essence, twisted versions of the average D&D adventuring party. Rather than raiding dungeons, they raid time itself. This, then, has the potential of setting up an adventure or series of adventures where a group of players are hired by the cult to do their dirty work — go retrieve this device that lies just beyond that gate over there. If they do, then the fun begins as they must deal with the consequences of their actions...

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Saintly Saturday: The Synaxis of St. John the Baptist

Today is the Synaxis of St. John the Baptist. A synaxis is a gathering. After major feasts, there is a gathering of the various saints associated with the feast the next day. Thus, December 26th is the Synaxis of the Virgin Mary. Since yesterday was the feast of Epiphany (the baptism of Christ), today is the Synaxis of St. John — the one who baptized Christ.

As an aside, I am always struck by the hymns that are sung at this time of year. Various aspects of nature get anthropomorphized:
Jordan River, tell us do: What did you see and were amazed? I saw naked Him whom none can see, and shuddered in fear. And how was I not to shudder at Him and be frightened? The Angels, when they saw Him also shuddered in awe. And heaven was astonished, and astounded was earth. The sea recoiled along with all things both visible and invisible. For Christ appeared in the River Jordan, to sanctify the waters.
It is a reminder that Christ willingly uses His creation as active participants in his salvific work. Despite the fact that water is one of the most deadly and destructive forces in nature, despite the fact that the cross is one of the most heinous tools of torture and death devised by man, Christ chose to use both. It is this fact that drives me to play RPGs the way that I do. There is no part of creation where Christ does not belong and that He cannot transform into resurrection.

One of the more interesting traditions of Orthodox Christianity at this time of year the the Great Blessing of the Waters. In places with larger Orthodox communities, this blessing will take place at rivers, lakes and oceans. A cross will be thrown into the waters and young men and women will dive in to try and be the one to retrieve it. Those that do receive a special blessing for the coming year.

This past summer, I came up with some random tables to come up with various festivals that could populate an RPG world. Given that post was also inspired by one of the many days of the year dedicated to St. John the Baptist, I thought I’d expand on that table. The following is designed to come up with unusual traditions that can accompany said feasts and festivals:


  1. Combat
  2. Move
  3. Find
  4. Retrieve
  5. Defeat
  6. Race
  7. Speak with
  8. Journey
  9. Destroy
  10. Trap
  11. Sacrifice
  12. Explore


  1. Holy Symbol
  2. Undead
  3. Magic/Magic Item
  4. Child
  5. Gem or Jewel
  6. Class (1=Fighter; 2=Magic-User; 3=Cleric; 4=Thief)
  7. Demi-Human Race (1=Dwarf; 2=Elf; 3=Halfling)
  8. Exotic Animal
  9. Exotic Plant
  10. Maiden
  11. Construct
  12. Monster


  1. Mountain
  2. Ruins
  3. Bazaar
  4. Castle
  5. Battlefield
  6. Temple
  7. Woods
  8. Desert
  9. Cave
  10. Body of Water
  11. Tomb
  12. Dungeon

I have left these tables kind of vague so that it is possible to come up with several variations for each result. This allows some flexibility so that the feast and the tradition don’t need to be incongruous. For instance, let us take the example feast from original tables (The Discovery of the Skull of the Mother of a Regional Saint) with the rolls on these tables of 11, 4 and 1. Sacrificing a child on a mountain does really fit; however a child making a sacrifice on a mountain does.

Of course, these tables can be expanded or modified to better meet your particular idiosyncrasies. Have fun.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Cults of Averoigne Part 2

Though I am quite satisfied with the Oamenbun — an analog for the Cathari of 13th century France — I also need to set up a pagan cult. Since the Crimson King and his Black Queen are so tightly associated with the pagan past of Averoigne and since time tends to be a bit non-linear — especially around the Chateau des Faussesflammes — I need to establish the pagan cult the king and queen were/are/will be involved in.

I originally created this bit a heraldry for the Crimson King because of its Wotanic overtones:

However, since I have gone to the trouble of tying the Oamenbun to a regional group, I also want to have stronger local ties to inspire this pagan cult. Thus, I have been doing some cursory investigation into the paganism found in France. Here are the three local cults that I find most useful:

  • Esus (which means Master) was local to the tribes of southern France. Blood sacrifices were made in his name and he was also associated with hanging. He was depicted with three birds and a bull.
  • Sucellus (which means Good Striker) was depicted with a long-handled hammer and a cauldron. He was usually seen accompanied by a raven and a three-headed dog. This suggests that he had a very strong association with funerals, death and the underworld.
  • Nantosuelta (which means Winding River) was associated with nature, valleys and streams. She was the consort of Sucellus and was depicted carrying a staff topped with a dovecote as well as a cornucopia. Her symbol was the raven, so she also was associated with death and the underworld.

I plan on doing an amalgam of these three by taking the name and practices of the cult of Esus and applying them to Sucellus and Nantosuelta, since they parallel the Crimson King and the Black Queen. Thus, these two will be simply called Master and Mistress. Their cult will practice human sacrifice wherein the victim is hung and exsanguinated. Necromancy and the undead will also be a huge part of cultic practice.

The various associations of these three also suggest a number of artifacts that might be found while exploring the Chateau des Faussesflammes:

  • The Master’s Maul, also known as Lovitor, or Striker. Its size seems to suggest that gauntlets of ogre power or a girdle of giant strength are necessary to even wield the weapon and a combination of the two might be necessary to take full advantage of its powers.
  • The Mistress’ Staff, also known as Rau or River. There are several possibilities here. The dovecote suggests the ability to summon and control birds. The name Rau suggests water-based magic. A combination of the two suggests the ability to summon and control a water elemental in the form of a bird.
  • The Master’s Cauldron. I cannot help but think of the Black Cauldron from Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain. It was the source of the Arawn’s army of undead and the only way to destroy it is by willingly sacrificing oneself by crawling in. This suggests a couple of special creatures that might be produced by the cauldron, based upon the sacrifices made to the Master — the Hanged Ones and Blood Golems.
  • The Mistress’ Cornucopia. Given her association with rivers, it makes sense that this artifact is an unending source of water; however, given her association with the dead, it also suggests another special undead. Should a corpse “drink” from the Cornucopia, it will rise as an undead called the Drowned.

Finally, there are several creatures that suggest themselves (besides the undead and the blood golem):

  • The Raven — this strongly suggests spies. It will be fun to play on the paranoia of the players once they figure out that the birds can reveal their secret plans to the enemy.
  • The Three-Headed Dog — this, of course, brings to mind Cerberus the guardian of the gate to the Underworld. Thus, somewhere under the Chateau he will guard some major treasure horde or possibly some kind of hub wherein gates to several different time/space destinations can be found.
  • The Bull — this suggests that a gorgon wanders the halls of the Chateau and that statues in various poses of fright and combat be littered throughout. Imagine the surprise of a party carrying mirrors in preparation for a medusa or a basilisk realize that their doom is actually a breath weapon.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Cults of Averoigne Part 1

Among the various wilderness encounter areas that I have for my version of Averoigne are several cultists. I included them on my Random Wilderness Encounter Tables because not only do I want an interesting and insidious group of human adversaries but because there is an historical precedence in 13th century France for such a group.

From 1209-1229 nobles of northern France were encouraged to wipe out the Catharism abundant in southern France in what is known as the Albigensian Crusade. It all started when a papal legate was murdered while trying to negotiate with Cathar nobles. Lands held by Cathars were offered up as rewards for those nobles willing to take up arms. There were a couple of interesting consequences from this crusade.

  1. Southern France had a distinct culture and language. In the wake of the crusade, both of these were greatly reduced under stronger influence of the French crown over the area.
  2. The crusade played a role in the establishment and institutionalization of the Inquisition.

Both of these suggest some very interesting background noise for an Averoigne campaign. First, the language and culture of Averoigne is distinct from the rest of the region. Secondly, Inquisitors tend to be outsiders who have a nationalistic agenda rather than a purely religious one.

Catharism is a dualistic gnostic Christian heresy. Dualism is a belief system that holds that there are two equally powerful deities — one good and one evil. Gnosticism takes on various forms, but there are several characteristics which can be identified as gnostic. In the case of Catharism, they identify the god of the Old Testament as a demiurge — what they term the Rex Mundi — that is in actuality the evil god in their dualistic pantheon. This results in another typical gnostic characteristic — the belief that creation and all matter are fundamentally evil, having been created by the Rex Mundi. As a result, Catharism understands the person of Jesus to be a manifestation of spirit unbound by matter who in no way shape or form became human or died on the Cross.

Of course, these beliefs run counter to Christian orthodoxy which holds that the Trinitarian God is the only God who even has dominion over the devil and his angels; creation was declared very good by God; and Christ definitively became a human being and died on the Cross.

Cathari religious texts included parts of the New Testament (especially the Gospel of John), The Gospel of the Secret Supper (sometimes called John’s Interrogation) and The Book of Two Principles. There is some question as to whether or not the name Cathar was used by the heretical group. More certainly, they referred to themselves as Bons Hommes or Good Men.

Despite this moniker, gnostic theology has some nasty consequences. Since all matter is considered evil, how one treats matter is of little consequence. Thus, extreme asceticism and hedonism are both frequent expressions of gnostic practice. Taking this understanding of material as evil to a logical conclusion, it is possible for gaming purposes to justify torture as a legitimate tool of religious conversion and discipline — to remove dependence upon evil matter.

Therefore, the analogous group for the Cathari (which I am thinking of calling the Oamenbun) would practice extreme asceticism (horse hair shirts being considered mild) who would think nothing of kidnapping and torture as a means of furthering their own agenda. The inner circle of leaders would have secret dens of inequity where all kinds of heinous and hedonistic practices can be found. Most intriguingly, this group would be fervently nationalistic — resisting the influence of non-Averoigne culture and language. This nationalism would earn them wide support among the locals.