Saturday, June 17, 2017

Saintly Saturday: St. Botolph Abbot of the Monastery Icanhoh

Today is the Feast of St. Botolph, Abbot of the Monastery Icanhoh who is a British saint from the 7th century. Born in Britain, he became a monk in Gaul. King Ethelmund of East Anglia sent his sisters to Gaul to learn the monastic discipline. There they met St. Botolph and learned that he wanted to return to Britain. Therefore, they requested that their brother bequeath some land to the monk so that he could build a monastery.

St. Botolph asked that whatever land was given to him did not come from any man’s possession so to avoid gaining from someone’s loss. Therefore, King Ethelmund granted the monk a piece of wilderness called Icanhoh. The place, according to his hagiography, was crawling with demons. Thus, before he began establishing his monastery, he had to fight with the demons and drive them all off. He spent the rest of his life in prayer becoming known for working miracles and speaking prophecy. After a bout with a painful disease in the last several years of his life, he passed in A.D. 680. HIs relics were found later to give off a sweet fragrance and to be incorrupt.

Eventually, the area around Icanhoh became settled and was known as Botolphston, which can mean both Botolph’s stone or Botolph’s town. As the years passed, the name of the place was contracted to “Boston.”

I have often pointed out the fact that the lives of the monastic saints closely resemble that of the typical D&D campaign. They come from Christian Civilization, go out into the Demonic Wilderness and tame it so that Civilization can expand; however, I don’t recall ever reading a saint’s life that so explicitly followed this formula. The hagiography literally says that Icanhoh was a desolate place where he had to fight demons. This is yet another example of why I think the formula of Christian Civilization vs. the Demonic Wilderness in D&D works so well, because it mirrors the experience of the Church Herself.

In addition, it is really cool to know that the etymology of my old stomping ground suggests that not only is Boston Bean Town but also St. Botolph’s Town. It is too bad that the only Church of St. Botolph I know of is in Boston, Lincolnshire. Boston, Mass should have something dedicated to their namesake.


The Red Seax

This legendary +1 short sword/long knife was forged from the strange red metal recovered from a meteor. It was forged to be a holy weapon using incense as its carbon source, etched with a holy symbol and quenched in holy oil. In the hands of a Lawful character, it offers Protection from Evil 10’r when wielded. Against Chaotic creatures it is a +2 weapon and against the undead it is +3.

Its original owner was the King’s Champion Dreux who had it forged specifically to combat a demon that had began to terrorize the people in the borderlands. Unfortunately, the demon prevailed and the Red Seax became part of the demon’s growing treasure trove. As the Kingdom’s fortunes fell with the increasing influence of the demon, the king’s youngest son, Merovech, gave up his monastic training to quest after the sword. He managed to sneak into the demon’s lair and steal the sword right out from beneath the creature’s nose. He went on to use the weapon to fight against and finally rid the kingdom of the demon’s influence, although he did die from the wounds he sustained before managing to deliver the killing blow to the demon itself. In honor of his great deeds, the Red Seax remains in the prince’s tomb where it awaits to be used once again to defend the realm against evil.

For those interested, I used random tables here and here to come up with the properties and the background of the sword.

Friday, June 16, 2017

Meditating on How I Play the Game

Having read JB’s thoughts on the matter and some of the rants that inspired his post, I want to share some of my thoughts, but not in a philosophical, ranty kind of way. Like others, I find the video that started off this whole series of posts to be rather a waste of time and largely mistaken. To explain how, I want to tell the stories of several seminal moments in my experience as someone who plays RPGs:

Moment the First

When I was a wee high-school baby, I was introduced through some of my older friends to a cigarette smoking college student who wanted to start running a D&D campaign. The premise was simple. He showed us a map of where our characters were and asked us what we wanted to do. I remember how eye-opening it was to be at the steering wheel of the campaign: “You mean this whole campaign can be about us trying to hunt down and kill that blue dragon you told us about!? YES!” And, indeed that was the entirety of the campaign.

It was also the first and last time I played a Chaotic Evil character. While I remember the campaign fondly, I do not remember my fellow players that way. Since all the players knew my character was Chaotic Evil (and therefore a threat, although what kind of danger they expected out of a 1st level Illusionist, I don’t know) and therefore they were always trying to kill my character. The DM, however, always had my back. Even when I blatantly explained how my actions were rather Chaotic and Evil, he always made the players explain to him how their characters would know. When they failed (because I was VERY careful that my actions could be interpreted as helpful) the DM would disallow every attempt to kill me off.

In other words, the DM did a really good job of being a DM. He gave us a bunch of freedom to do whatever we wanted within his world, but very strictly enforced parameters around that freedom. There were certain things that were just not going to happen (like using player knowledge to screw with other players at the table). This actually made the freedom we had as players more valuable. For example, I knew I could get away with certain CE-like acts because the DM made sure that players couldn’t abuse their player knowledge and, in a way, I think he enjoyed how much I toed the line so that being CE never actually overtly hurt the party.

Moment the Second

Like many players in the 90s I played a lot of White Wolf products, and believe it or not I really appreciated these games. They actually taught me a lot about how to play a game. When my friends approached me about playing Vampire for the first time, for some odd reason they wanted me to be the…was it Storyteller? is that what they called the Referee/DM/GM? The reason I say odd, is because I rarely sat in the DM’s chair when we played. In retrospect, it might have been the few times I ran Call of Cthulhu one-shots that inspired them to ask me to take the reigns of a horror-themed RPG.

If I am honest, I rather didn’t waste a lot of time reading up on “how to play” essays littered throughout the industry. I learned by doing and this was the first real opportunity I had to put into practice what I had learned from my experience in Moment the First. I presented my players with a world: Boston. I informed them of that world through their various clans and then dropped a McGuffin into the whole mess where everybody wanted the McGuffin for different reasons. I then allowed my players to do what they wanted to do (within the parameters set by the game and by the setting).

In many ways, it was one of the more thoroughly satisfying campaigns I have ever been a part of, because I was surprised every time we played. My players refused to be predictable and as a consequence, my world had to react in ways I never imagined. It all culminated in a rousing three-way battle in the middle of Cambridge which left the players catching their breath in disbelief that they had actually survived. The best part: one of the players decided that it was in the best interest of everybody that the McGuffin be destroyed. I remember the player asking me if he could talk to me in private, because he wasn’t really sure that what he wanted to do was allowed. When I said, “Sure, why not?” I saw in him myself when that cigarette smoking DM asked our party what we wanted do to. He suddenly realized how much power he had over his own character and the campaign. The reaction around the table when the McGuffin shattered to pieces was one of the best moments I have ever had at an RPG table. I wasn’t responsible for that reaction, but I set up the freedom and the parameters for its possibility. I have been trying to duplicate this atmosphere for my players ever since and every campaign has a moment just like this, where my world interacts with a group of players that have taken the reigns of the campaign to create something that I could never manufacture on my own, even if I tried.

Moment the Third

In another White Wolf campaign, the group I played with decided to give Mage a try. We all toiled over character creation and painstakingly crafted the characters we all thought we wanted to play. Then our Storyteller? Referee? did something rather surprising that we all found shockingly fun: once he had introduced the fundamentals of the campaign, he handed us our characters’ counter-parts in the Technocracy. I ended up with a chick in a wheelchair. At first we all were not very happy, but then as we started to play we all realized that playing these characters that we had nothing to do with the creation of was actually more fun than playing our actual characters. I had no time invested in this character at all so I seized upon some of the things I saw on the character sheet and began playing her personality to the hilt without any fear of having this character die or be harmed or of even being liked. Other players followed suit and we soon found ourselves clicking as party, playing off of each other and outdoing ourselves when we had those carefully crafted characters we spent so much time creating. We were actually disappointed when we had to go back to our own characters.

Playing wheelchair chick made me realize that unfettered creativity isn’t all that creative. Left to our own devices, we human beings are kind of boring. When we start putting limiters on where we start with our creativity, whether those limits are playing a character we had nothing to do with creating, using random tables, rolling attributes in order, using only the Fiend Folio or Monster Manual II, using B/X or the original three LBBs as a starting point or whatever, the choices we make are going to surprise us and lead down paths we would never have thought of otherwise. This was yet another example of complete freedom within a set of strict parameters that just exploded with creativity and good fun. I have used random tables ever since.

Moment the Fourth

I will end with a bad experience. It was the first time I played D&D 3.5 with a DM that pretty much resembled the fellow in the video that started this mass spilling of virtual ink. Our party found ourselves in a time-crunch. We couldn’t retreat for fear of the evil we had uncovered getting away and becoming more powerful. So we pressed forward through the dungeon we were in despite not being prepared in the way 3.5 expects its players to be. When we got to the boss fight, it should have been a TPK. We couldn’t afford to retreat, but we couldn’t do damage at a rate that would allow us to survive the encounter. In fact, my character was completely incapable of doing any damage. I was out of spells and was only good as a meat shield. When the DM realized the situation, he started fudging die rolls and inexplicably changed tactics so that our party could actually start doing the kind of damage we needed to do in order to survive.

I actually felt cheated. My character should have died and I was robbed of a(n in)glorious death. We missed an opportunity as a group to re-think our party make-up and the way in which we approached the campaign to start anew and having to deal with all of the consequences of our previous party’s failure. Instead, we were all slaves of the story. The campaign never really recovered for me, but the upside is that it created an opening for me to introduce this group of players to Labyrinth Lord and the Lost Colonies were born. Although I have been sore tempted to fudge a die roll now and then, I have done my best to keep myself honest by rolling all my dice in the open ever since. As a consequence, even when those die rolls have resulted in the death of a beloved character, I have never felt cheated.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Saintly Saturday: The Holy Schemamonk Silvanus of the Kiev Caves

Today is the feast of the Holy Schemamonk Silvanus of the Kiev Caves. He was an ascetic in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. The monastery of the Kiev Caves (also known as Kiev Pecharsk Lavra) was founded in the eleventh century and today looks like this:

Anyone itching to make a mega-dungeon with the classic
trope of an abandoned monastery with caves beneath?
Photo by Falin - Own workCC BY-SA 3.0Link

A Schemamonk is one who takes on the Great Schema, which is a type of extreme ascetic monasticism. They wear a special vestment which looks like this:

Don't you just  want this guy in your campaign world?
Orthodox Christian nuns with the Great Schema

Interestingly, there is an example of a miracle performed through St. Silvans that looks an awful lot like a Hold Person spell. There was a group of robbers that had come to the monastery to do mischief. St. Silvans saw them sneaking through the garden and through his prayers they were held fast and unable to move. Only after they repented did the monk set them free. I see this as further evidence that the original Cleric Spell List was mostly inspired by Christian miracles.

For those interested, here is the monk class re-imagined as a Western, Christian analog class for B/X and Labyrinth Lord. I use this as a class available to players in my Lost Colonies campaign.

Red Monk

Prime Requisite: STR, WIS, DEX and CON
Hit Dice: 1d6
Maximum Level: 14
Class Damage Die: d6 (For those who use it)
Requirements: Must be Lawful

In Wilderness areas at the edge of Istenite Civilization is a militant order of monastics that is popularly known as the Red Monks, due to their use of a red wolf hook in their heraldry as well as their reddish-brown robes. Through ascetic practices of prayer and fasting, red monks seek to hone their bodies into living weapons to fight against evil in order to make The Wilderness safe for Civilization.

Red Monks fight and save as Fighters. The are limited to leather armor or lighter as well as shields. [For those who don’t use the class damage die, they may use crossbows, hand axes, polearms, spears, swords and staff.]

In addition, they have the following abilities:
  • At 1st level: A Red Monk is at +1 AC while able to freely move and wearing leather armor or lighter and are trained in Unarmed Fighting. They may use a 1d2-1/1d2-1/1d4-1 attack routine when not using a weapon.
  • At 2nd level: Red Monks are at +1 AC and +1 Saves vs. Chaotic creatures
  • At 3rd level: A Red Monk’s Unarmed attack routine increases to 1d3-1/1d3-1/1d6-1.
  • At 4th level: A Red Monk becomes immune to all forms of fear, including magical fear.
  • At 5th level: A Red Monk’s Unarmed attack routine increases to 1d3-1/1d3-1/1d8-1.
  • At 6th level: A Red Monk becomes immune to all forms of disease, including magical diseases.
  • At 7th level: A Red Monk is at +2 AC while able to freely move and wearing leather armor or lighter. A Red Monk’s Unarmed attack routine increases to 1d4-1/1d4-1/1d8-1.
  • At 8th level: A Red Monk becomes immune to all poisons, including magical poisons.
  • At 9th level: A Red Monk’s Unarmed attack routine increases to 1d4-1/1d4-1/1d10-1.
  • At 13th level: A Red Monk is at +3 AC while able to freely move and wearing leather armor or lighter
Red monks must have at least 13 in all prime requisites in order to get the +5% to experience. They must also have a STR and WIS of 16 to get the +10% bonus.

Reaching 9th Level: A Red Monk may build a fortified church.

0 XP ..... Level 1
2,450 ..... Level 2
4,900 ..... Level 3
9,800 ..... Level 4
19,600 .... Level 5
39,200 .... Level 6
80,000 .... Level 7
160,000 .... Level 8
280,000 .... Level 9
400,000 .... Level 10
520,000 .... Level 11
640,000 .... Level 12
760,000 .... Level 13
880,000 .... Level 14

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Meditating on Grappling (5e + B/X)

Over at B/X Blackrazor, JB ran an adventure for his kids and shared a little house rule he uses with multiple attacks:
My (simple) house rule gives creatures with multiple attacks one attack roll per round versus a maximum number of opponents equal to its multiple the [carrion] crawler (for example) would be able to attack up to eight opponents, but regardless it would make only one attack per character per round. This is something I've been doing for a while now, and I find it works well in practice
This got me thinking about how I might express this idea in context of the Advantage/Disadvantage system from 5e (because I really want to see how many applications this mechanic can have). My starting point is an old-standby in the OSR and was even codified in S&W Complete:
Just as shields improve armor class by 1, fighting two-handed grants a +1 to damage rolls . . . and fighting with a weapon in each hand gives a +1 to hit. (Note that fighting with two weapons does not actually give two separate attacks; it just increases the likelihood of landing a successful blow.)
So, multiple attacks don’t result in extra die-rolls, but rather in a bonus to-hit. Why not give advantage instead? Thus, the carrion crawler in JB’s example would get one attack, but would roll two dice and use the higher of the two.

Since we are already going down this rabbit hole, shield-fighting should do the opposite. Rather than affecting AC, having a shield puts attackers at a disadvantage, meaning that they would roll two dice and take the lower of the two results. This advantage would be cancelled out by either multiple attacks or flanking.

Two-handed weapons, therefore, should have advantage on damage rolls.

This all leads to grappling, the bane of every D&D combat ruleset. The reason for this is rather simple: combat in D&D is very abstract, which is why multiple attacks can equal a bonus to-hit (two-weapon wielding in S&W) or an advantage as in my musings above. Grappling, by its very nature is . . . not. Thus, once anyone tries to go down the road of specificity and handle grappling it gets messy.

The above concepts for using advantage/disadvantage suggest a nice and simple abstraction for grappling:

Anyone can grapple. A successful attack roll indicates that grappling is taking place and both the attacker and target are now at a disadvantage. Thus, anyone attacking those currently grappling gets to roll two dice and chose the higher of the two and those grappling must now roll two dice and take the lower of the two if they wish to make an attack. This can only work on creatures that are larger than the attacker at the Referee’s discretion.

This rule could also work for shield bashing, possibly even cancelling out the disadvantage the attacker gets for grappling because of the shield (though they would lose the defensive capabilities of the shield).

I am currently play testing these ideas with a summer-time  campaign with my kids. The first time it came into play was an encounter with a ghoul. Having shields made the encounter survivable and hammered the point that attacking with advantage and a paralyzing touch is just as nasty as three attacks per round with a paralyzing touch.

Saturday, June 3, 2017

Saintly Saturday: St. Alexis the Metropolitan of Moscow and Wonderworker of All Russia

I must admit, this is not the Feast of St. Alexis the Metropolitan of Moscow and Wonderworker of All Russia. HIs main feast is on February 12th and the Uncovering of his Relics is celebrated on May 20th (aka two weeks ago). I had been thinking of getting back into writing Saintly Saturdays because of St. Alexis, but life happened. So, today I will pretend I was on top of things and write a little about St. Alexis.

By a little, I really mean a little because there are tons of stories I could tell but don’t have the time or space for so I want to actually tell the story of how I met St. Alexis because not only is the experience ripe for inspiration with RPGs but it is an experience that you can have yourself.

I have spent a lot of time in hospitals the last several years having nothing to do but wait. So I searched far and wide for things that would not only pass the time, but do so in a way that would not sicken or depress me. One of the movies I found was call The Horde.

This is a Russian-made film based on an event that actually happened to St. Alexis when he personally went to placate The Horde, aka the Mongolian Empire. The film is gorgeous, haunting and fascinating. I particularly love two aspects of it:

  • Unlike so much of the stuff being made for American screens both big and small it is sympathetic to a Christian world view.
  • The narrative is written primarily from the perspective of the Mongolians. The crisis is theirs, not St. Alexis’. Their solution to the problem involves summoning the Sorcerer of Moscow.

While watching the movie, I didn’t realize it was a movie about an actual saint. It wasn’t until the movie was over that I went scrambling across the interwebs to find the life of St. Alexis and realized that this movie pulled a moment of his life to put on film. A rare thing and well worth your time.

From an RPG perspective, it paints the cleric as a sorcerer and presents an alien and frightening world that St. Alexis must enter. I might add, that despite the weirdness of the world presented, the fundamental humanity of it all is never lost. There a ton of ideas and images to be lifted from this movie that can translate wonderfully into an RPG world. For example, just the image of the painted faces of some of the Mongols. How cool would it be to integrate that kind of face painting into a fantasy culture?

So, see the movie. Encounter St. Alexis. Be inspired.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

St. Justin the Philosopher and Deities & Demi-Gods

It has been quite some time since I’ve regularly blogged about the saints and RPGs. Today is the Feast of St. Justin the Philosopher and he let me know that I should get back into the habit, at least once in awhile.

As his moniker suggests, St. Justin was a philosopher, but he was unsatisfied with all of the various attempts by secular thinkers to explain life, the universe and everything. He kept trying this and that until he encountered an old man that told him he would find Truth in the Gospel. In Christianity, St. Justin found the philosophy he had always longed for.

He opened a school in Rome, wrote two Apologetic Letters to the Roman Emperor defending Christianity among other works and was eventually martyred with several of his students in A.D. 165.

Before I get into the meat of this post, I do want to share a hymn sung on this feast that names St. Justin’s fellow martyrs:
Godly Justin great before the Lord, Peon the brave athlete, Valerion, and Chariton the wise, Charito, Evelpistus, and Hierax great of fame now have dyed in their very blood a bright and divine robe for the Sov'reign Lord of all; and being clad therewith, they all stand together rejoicing with the Angels’ hosts in the Heavens at the throne of Christ, the mighty King of all.
My RPG mind reads this and envisions a verse from a bard’s tale about a mighty group of adventurers to inspire and embolden a group of mud-drenched soldiers or to entertain a tavern full of people drinking mead. And talk about some great names! Peon the Athlete, Valerian the Wise, Hierax the Great. Surely these inspire at least an NPC or two.

Back in 2010, I wrote a post on Deities & Demi-Gods, which irked some folks because I took the position that it is good and right that the various pantheons of pagans gods and goddesses should have stats like monsters. I even have a Saintly Saturday post on St. Justin re-iterating that POV using St. Justin’s own words.

Well, here I am again drawn in by the words I find in the hymns of the Orthodox Church which support the view that pagan gods are really just demons dressed up as deities in order to pull the wool over humanity’s collective eyes:
When the chill of ignorance held sway over all creation because of the wanton spite of the foe, and the hoards of demons were adored and served as gods, then with willing and eager heart, O glorious Martyrs, you made chill deception cease through the most fervent heat of your burning zeal and divine faith, when you poured your blood out in longing for Him that poured out His Blood upon the Cross.
Again, in my RPG mind this screams dark fantasy where city states ruled by demons and their cultists dominate the world and the PC heroes must grind away in hopes of bringing some dim light of hope to a world of shadows . . . I sense another bout of Gamer ADD coming on.