Saturday, October 14, 2017

Saintly Saturday: St. Cosmas the Composer and Melodist

Today is the feast of St. Cosmas the Composer and Melodist who was not only a contemporary of St. John of Damascus (a famous 7th-8th century saint who wrote against iconoclasm) but was an adopted member of the family. He was elected bishop in the 8th century to a coastal city in Palestine. He was also an excellent hymnographer. Among his many compositions are two Canons that are still sung in the Orthodox Church today: the Canon of the Cross and the Canon for the Nativity of Christ.


Earlier this week, when I looked ahead to see who the saint was for today, I was left with a very tough question: What to do with a hymnographer? It is a reminder that D&D (and most RPGs, for that matter) don’t really have a place for someone like St. Cosmas. Yes, the argument can be made that he represents a Christian version of a Bard, but, not only do I not really like virtually any iteration of that class, I don’t think any version can easily be re-skinned to fit a St. Cosmas.

This leads me to a bit of Gamer ADD I have been suffering from lately. I’ve been distracted by Warhammer Fantasy RPG, the Mithgarthr “retro-clone” of 5e and Swords & Wizardry Continual Light. While absorbing so much awesome, my brain came up with an interesting challenge that I think answers the “problem” of St. Cosmas better than simply calling him a Bard:

Knowing what I know today in October 2017, what if I suddenly found myself back in the late 80s at the beginning of the end for TSR when my friends and I started drifting away from D&D? What would I do to modify D&D to make it enticing enough for my friends and I to continue to play realizing that I would have no access to the huge library of .pdfs and books that I have now? What resources could I use?

The first thing that came to mind is the idea of a 0-level character. Not only do I love this idea, but my friends probably would have as well because we reveled in the challenge of low-level play. I owned the 1st edition of Warhammer Fantasy RPG and it has an awesome list of careers that a potential 0-level character could come from.

Secondly, my friends did like the idea of the proficiency system that was being developed in books like Unearthed Arcana and Oriental Adventures. Why not take some of the skills from the Thief class, some of the skills from WFRP and use them in the broad sense suggested by both WFRP and 5e where each characteristic gets several skills associated with it?

Finally, this all has to exist on a random table that also allows for some customization. Therefore, each career would have the ability to move around some ability scores and a choice of skills to specialize in.

Here is a rough draft of what that might look like (Roll a d12):

  1. Alchemists’ Apprentice Skills: Craft, Medicine, Open Locks; Characteristic: INT
  2. Entertainer Skills: Blather, Perform, Sleight of Hand; Characteristic: CHA
  3. Herbalist Skills: Lore, Medicine, Sleight of Hand; Characteristic: WIS
  4. Initiate Skills: Blather, Etiquette, Read Languages; Characteristic: CHA
  5. Laborer Skills: Craft, Consume Alcohol, Open Locks; Characteristic: DEX
  6. Outlaw Skills: Climb Walls, Intimidate, Stealth; Characteristic: STR
  7. Rat-Catcher Skills: Animal Handling, Hunt, Swim; Characteristic: CON
  8. Sailor Skills: Climb Walls, Navigate, Swim; Characteristic: STR
  9. Scribe Skills: Lore, Read Languages, Stealth; Characteristic: INT
  10. Soldier Skills: Consume Alcohol, Intimidate, Hear Noise; Characteristic: DEX
  11. Squire Skills: Animal Handling, Etiquette, Perform; Characteristic: CON
  12. Woodsman Skills: Hear Noise, Hunt, Navigate; Characteristic: WIS

Skills: Players can try to justify doing anything under the pretense of a skill. PCs can automatically succeed at the DM’s discretion. Any character can use any skill at a base success rate of 1 in 6. Each career offers three skills that can be specialized in. The player prioritizes these specializations at character creation. At 0-level these three skills have a base success rate of 9+, 12+ and 15+ on a d20. As a character gains levels, these chances improve by 1 per level (8+, 11+, 14+ at 1st level). A roll of ‘1’ always fails

Each specialization is associated with a characteristic. The bonus or penalty of that characteristic can be applied to a roll with a specialization (but not to the generic 1 in 6 chance):

STR: Climb Walls, Intimidate, Swim
INT: Craft, Lore, Read Languages
WIS: Hear Noise, Medicine, Navigate
CON: Animal Handling, Consume Alcohol, Hunt
DEX: Open Locks, Sleight of Hand, Stealth
CHA: Blather, Etiquette, Permform

Characteristic: Each career can rearrange their starting characteristics (rolled in order) by taking the highestt roll and switching with the Characteristic associated with the career. For example: an Initiate with STR 10, INT 7, WIS 15, DEX 17, CON 10, CHA 8 can switch out their DEX and CHA scores so that the characteristics look like this: STR 10, INT 7, WIS 15, DEX 8, CON 10, CHA 17
Once a character reaches 1st level and chooses a class, these characteristics may be further adjusted according to the rules in Basic D&D.

Each PC would fight as a 0-level human with d4 hit points. 1st-level would be attained after one adventure.

Saturday, October 7, 2017

Saintly Saturday: Sts. Sergius and Bacchus the Great Martyrs of Syria

Today is the feast of Sts. Sergius & Bacchus the Great Martyrs of Syria. The Roman Emperor Maximian (A.D. 284-305) appointed these two saints to high positions in his army, ignorant of the fact that they were Christians. The saints were subsequently accused of refusing to sacrifice to the idols by those envious of these positions. The two were arrested and, of course, confirmed their refusal.

As a consequence, they were stripped of their military insignia, stripped of their clothing, dressed as women and paraded through the city streets in mockery. Afterwards they were tortured. Bacchus died by scourging and Sergius was beheaded after being placed in iron sandals with nails in the soles.



This story reminds me of several folks I have encountered in my dialogues about religion that simultaneously criticize Christianity for its cruelties and romanticize various forms of paganism. When we romanticize things, we tend to fall into the trap of anachronism — we impose our own modern values onto something from the past that cannot have possibly been associated with those values.

Today, transgenderism is a hot topic and here we have pagan Rome dressing up men in woman’s clothing as a punishment, demonstrating the large disconnect between the most current modern value fad and ancient pagan values.

While some may quibble or be downright offended by my use of the word “fad” in context of transgenderism, I insist upon it because our political class has fetishized the concept to the point where we can’t actually deal with transgenders as people because they are being used as an excuse to inflame political debate.

I am also reminded of the various old-school cursed magic items that would permanently change the sex of its user as well as the various Reincarnation spell tables that bring back dead characters as anything from badgers to trolls. Believe it or not, as a Christian I actually like these aspects of old-school gaming.

Recently, I have been involved locally with dialogues on the topic of racism. I keep running into the fallacy that people cannot understand what it’s like to be ‘X,’ completely ignoring the old adage that we should walk a mile in another man’s shoes. In their own way, RPGs allow us to walk that mile. We get an opportunity to experiment with ideas and thought processes that are not entirely our own.

As a player, one of the most magical moments I experience in play is when my character insists on doing something that I would not. It is precisely in these moments that characters come alive and I get to experience wearing those shoes.

As a Christian, this is an extremely important exercise, because it ultimately makes it easier to see the image and likeness of God in others. If I can empathize with others and understand why they do and think what they do and think I can see them as people rather than a political tool used to gain and maintain power.

***

This all made me think of an interesting twist on the concept of the Elven Boot and Elven Cloak. Rather than aiding the wearer in being sneaky, these items endow the wearer with the ability to adventure as another class in the same way that Elves in 0e would choose to be either a Magic-user or a Fighter before each adventure, earning experience only in that class. Thus, there could be three different types of boots/cloaks: Fighter, Magic-user and Thief (elves don’t really do the Cleric thing). As long as the character is wearing the Elven Boot/Cloak they can adventure as and gain experience in the class associated with the item. Should the item ever be lost or destroyed, the character loses all those XP and abilities.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

On Vitriol Revisited

A few years ago, I blogged about a conflict that arose in our little corner of the internet. I called it On Vitriol and those posts can be found here. Fair warning: I don’t know how successful those posts were. While they did provoke some thought, they also offended people.

Recently, there has been another conflict in our space that folks are concerned enough about that they’ve publicly blogged about conflict resolution and how to get through this most resent clash with as little damage as possible. Therefore, I thought it might be useful to revisit some of the ideas that I tried to communicate with my posts On Vitriol.

Before I go further, I need to make this clear: I have no real skin in this game. I am not active on G+ (where, evidently this conflict has had the most impact) and besides a couple of posts on blogs I frequent, I would have lived life without being aware of this conflict and it would likely have had (or even have) little effect on my gaming life (such as it is). Therefore, I am not particularly interested in the personalities involved and I don’t intend to impugn or defend anyone.

This post is intended to be about ideas, not the specific people directly involved in the current conflict (although, ultimately, this is about people in general). I will be linking to some posts where these ideas happen to appear, but this is to give folks an opportunity to see these ideas in context not an endorsement or condemnation of the people who posted these ideas.

Having said that, I want to pull three quotes that I find particularly interesting:
Those seeking justice often have to organize allies in order to force contact and conversation, negotiation. Trying to create communication is almost always the uphill struggle of the falsely blamed. And entire movements are structured around the goal of forcing one party to face the reality of the other, and thereby face themselves. — Sarah Schulman (link here)
What we need now, in our political leaders, in our communities, in our lives is humility. Have the humility to know that you don't have all the answers. Have the humility to know when to stop obsessing about something. — Greg C. (Link here)
The content objectives followed one rule: don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Post what you're working on already, not something designed specifically for posting, and don't worry about whether it's perfect. — Matt Finch (Link here)
Assuming that these three ideas exist in a post-Christian/secular/ atheist context, the only one that has any legs is Sarah’s. Notice that her’s is the only one that deals with power structures and the force necessary to move power. In the face of power and force, humility and the concept of good have no real use or value.

This exposes one of the great weaknesses of a post-Christian/ secular/atheist society: it is very vulnerable to authoritarian and totalitarian impulses. While Sarah couches her argument in justice, the defense of those who are falsely accused and those who are outside of power structures, this model ignores the possibility of those in power framing themselves as the falsely accused and framing those outside of power as the ones making the false accusations and the injustice of it all. This strategy has been used multiple times throughout history to solidify extant power structures. For example: Stalin and the bourgeoisie, Mao and Western cultural influences, Pol Pot and the intelligentsia and Hitler and the Jews.

Within the space that we occupy in communities on the internet, power is not primarily derived from physical force as it is in the (admittedly) extreme examples I mentioned above. Rather, we deal in reputation and influence. One has power based on the number of followers/readers/clicks they have and the number of ups/retweets/shares they get. Thus, when there is conflict it targets these power structures. As a consequence, it can get very nasty indeed. The most effective means of reducing someone’s power on the internet is to destroy their reputation and/or destroy their influence.

Internet fights usually involve exposing nasty details of an opponent’s personality to ruin reputations and bullying and harassing to reduce the amount of time and energy the opponent actually spends on-line. I don’t think anyone can disagree that this is the world we live in. Indeed, I would argue that we got Trump because the folks who had put so much value in humility and in the concept of good realized that these had no value in our post-Christian/secular/atheist world and so turned to someone who knows how to wield power in the Twitter-verse. As a consequence, our society is in process of shedding any vestige of civility.

If we are interested in placing value on humility, goodness or anything other than power then we need to start acknowledging the value of a Christian culture. Please note: I am not advocating for people to become Christians (although that would be nice), just that they acknowledge that having the idea of a Christian God is important, even vital, to a free and functioning society. I am also aware that Christians are just as capable as anyone else of abusing power; however, even just having the notion that the Christian God is a good idea helps place value on things like humility and goodness.

The Trinitarian God of Christianity is a relational being (Father, Son and Holy Spirit) who loves human beings to such an extent that, in the person of the Son, He willingly became a human being in order to be tortured and killed so that He could share Himself with us. Since this same God created us according to His image and likeness, there is intrinsic value (goodness) in imitating Him in order to become like Him and fulfill the potential of that image and likeness. Thus, even in the face of power, standards like humility and goodness still have value because these things not only come from God, but are demonstrated by God Himself in the person of Jesus Christ.

However, within the context of our own online community, the most important implication of the Trinitarian image and likeness is that of relationship. If God is a relational being and we are made according to His image and likeness, than we are also meant to be relational beings. This also goes beyond merely being friends with those with whom we agree. God is a radical other. His being is so different from ours that we cannot hope to be able to ever comprehend it. Yet, He took on our humanity to Himself in the person of Jesus Christ.

Thus, if we are to strive to fulfill God’s image and likeness in ourselves, we must strive to be in fruitful relationships with those who are radically different than us: not only those who look and act differently than we do, but those with whom we disagree.

In this context, power becomes largely meaningless and values like humility and goodness not only become important but manifest in us.

Thus, I humbly ask, that we allow God back in, even if only as an idea.