Sunday, December 31, 2017

Saintly Saturday: St. Anysia the Virgin Martyr of Thessalonica

(Yesterday was) the Feast of the Virginmartyr Anysia of Thessalonica. Although I had every intention of writing about this yesterday, life got in the way of me having the time, so I am up early today to get these thoughts down.

Anysia lived during the reign of Maximian (A.D. 286-305). She was raised in a pious Christian home and dedicated her life to strict fasting, vigil and prayer after the death of her parents. During the persecution of Christians under Maximian, it was decreed that anyone had the right to kill Christians with no consequences. During this period, Anysia was on her way to church when she was stopped by a pagan soldier. He demanded that she accompany him to a sun festival and offer sacrifice. When she demurely declined, he began to be aggressive. She then spit in his face and declared that, “My Lord Jesus Christ forbids you!” He immediately drew his sword and ran her through.

Christians secretly gathered up her remains and buried her near the city gates. Eventually, a chapel was built over her grave.

There are a couple of FRPG tropes that come to mind when I read the life of St. Anysia: Murder Hobos and Temple Street. Interestingly, her story offers a way of dealing with the first and a refutation of the latter.

Way back when I first starting DMing my group of friends in Jr. High, our very first session was very short. The TPK happened as the PCs were gathering info about the adventures in the area when the thief decided to be a pick pocket. He failed miserably. The City Guard showed up and the party decided that they could fight their way out of the problem. Didn’t happen. My friends were upset, until I explained why their characters couldn’t behave that way and we rolled up a new party which went on to adventure for several years.

The story of Anysia reminds of that, but offers a rather dark twist to the tale as well as a very interesting challenge. Long-time readers know that I love Arneson’s 1 xp = 1 gp of treasure spent. This necessitates players to interact with the world in ways that would not normally happen because they need to creatively get rid of their treasure in order to advance in levels. What if, however, the town or city that was most readily available declared that certain PC classes or races were illegal and could be killed on site? On the one hand, it would offer Murder Hobos all the excuse they need to go on a killing spree, but to what end? All the gold they might get from such an endeavor would be useless. On the other hand, threat of immediate death coupled with the need to get rid of gold to get higher levels might just prove to create a whole new level of creativity as players figure out ways to game the system.

As a kid I never really read any of the popular fantasy stuff that everyone else did. As the guy who usually had to be DM, I liked to go to books that no one had read so that I could have a unique source of ideas that players could be surprised by, rather than having full knowledge of the source material and ruining some of the surprises. One of my favorite of these books was The Seven Altars of Dusarra by Lawrence Watt-Evans. It played hard to the fantasy trope of Temple Street, where our hero, Garth of Ordunin, had to steal objects from the altars of each of the seven temples in the city of Dusarra.

This is great stuff, if you are aping the classic tales of REH, CAS, etc. While one might find such a situation in places like medieval India, there are very few historical examples of Temple Street in the medieval world that is suggested by most FRPGs. The reality is far more likely to be like the story of St. Anysia where Christians found an out of the way place and worshiped in relative secrecy. The medieval world is dominated by monotheistic (or singular) religions and adherents of other faiths live their religious lives quietly and out of the way.

While this may not be as exciting as Temple Street, it does give opportunities for adventure. Adventure locations can be built around different eras of different dominant faiths and the treasure or location the party is after could be a grave hidden near a gate by a religious group now out of favor by the powers that be.

Monday, December 25, 2017

Christ is Born!

Merry Christmas!

A great and paradoxal miracle has taken place today. A Virgin has given birth, and there is no damage to her womb. The Word becomes flesh, and He is not separated from the Father. Angels and Shepherds give glory, and we join them in shouting: "Glory in the highest to God, and on earth let there be peace." — Aposticha of Christmas

Saturday, December 23, 2017

Saintly Saturday: Ten Martyrs of Crete

Today is the Feast Day of the Ten Martyrs of Crete: Theodulus, Saturninus, Euporus, Gelasius, Eunician, Zoticus, Agathopus, Basilides, Evarestus and Pompey. About the year A.D. 250, during the persecution Decius, these martyrs were brought before the governor from all over the island of Crete: Panormus, Cydonia, Heraklion, and Gortynia. When they refused to renounce Christ, they were tortured in many and sundry ways for thirty days. At this point, the governor was so frustrated he had them all beheaded.

I may have mused on this point before (because it is a point that I make a lot in various milieus), but decapitation was a citizen’s death in the Roman Empire. All of the various nasty things they did to Christians, they did because the crime they were accused of was treason. To refuse to offer sacrifice at the idol of the Emperor was to refuse a citizen’s civic duty.

Thus, when a martyr was beheaded, the official overseeing the trial was admitting that the crime for which the Christian was accused of was false. They were not traitors because they were given a citizen’s death, not the death of a traitor.

Besides the theological victory over death through Christ, many martyrs were also victorious over their persecutors by forcing them to acknowledge the falsehood of the charges against them through beheading.

This leads to an interesting line of questions when it comes to world-building in RPGs: what does it mean to be a citizen? Throughout history, citizenship came with certain privileges as well as responsibilities. For example: feudal societies required those nobles underneath a King to provide taxes and military might when called upon. Likewise, citizens of a City State were called upon to defend the city militarily when in need.

I must admit, this is an aspect of world-building that I have often let go by the wayside. Has it ever been a feature in one of your campaigns? If so, how?

Thursday, December 21, 2017

On Adventure Design

Back in December of 2011, I did a review of a module penned by Matt Finch called Demonspore. In it I stated that is the best module produced by the OSR. In the most critical way, I still maintain this position: Demonspore remains one of the very few modules written in the last ten years I have actually used at the table and would do again in a heartbeat.

The reason is quite simple. Whereas there have been some amazing ideas out there that form the foundation of some great material (many of which blow Demonspore out of the water), very few adventures go out of their way to be as flexible as Finch’s Demonspore. In Matt’s own words:
The module is extremely flexible in terms of how to fit it into an ongoing campaign; there are four possible approaches to the Halls of the Toad-King, two of which are underground passages that can be linked to one of your own dungeons or might simply lead to the surface. There are also two river entrances, one of which is guarded, allowing a frontal assault or a negotiation type of adventure, and the other of which is more difficult to enter, but is not guarded. This second river entrance might be used if the adventure is to be more of an infiltration.
In other words, I could drop this module into my existing megadungeon without a hitch and had several sessions of great adventuring that ultimately led to the story behind why stirge meat is a delicacy in Headwaters in my Lost Colonies campaign.

At the time, I challenged other adventure designers to follow suit. Indeed, I hoped enough folks would produce similarly designed material that could be pieced together seamlessly as an ever growing community designed megadungeon that could be dropped into any campaign. Alas, Demonspore remains one of the more obscure adventures in Matt Finch’s library and no one (to my knowledge) heeded my call.

In thinking about how to do my own version of ToEE, it occurred to me that I had an opportunity to head my own advice. I will release the various pieces and parts of my version of ToEE as individual adventure modules under the moniker of Adventure Tools. Like Demonspore before them, they can be dropped into any campaign, stand on their own, be an add-on to a extant dungeon or collected together and run as the semi-megadungeon that I am in process of putting together. At some point, I’ll do an omnibus edition where all of them are stitched together as the module I originally had in mind, but I really want to highlight this idea of flexibility and usability in an adventure module.

Hopefully, someone besides me will see the value in this simple design concept.

Saturday, December 16, 2017

Saintly Saturday: The Prophet Haggai

Today is the Feast of the Prophet Haggai who prophesied in the year 520 B.C. during the post-exilic era in Jerusalem. Not a lot is known about him. The book in the Bible that bears his name is only two chapters long. It's message can be simply summed up thusly: Quit lallygagging and get the Temple built!

According to Rabbinic Teaching, Haggai is credited with three teachings:
  1. A man whose brother married his daughter (as a co-wife) cannot conssumate a levirate marriage with his deceased brother’s co-wives.
  2. Jews living in Ammon and Moab need to separate the poor man’s tithe during the Sabbatical year
  3. Proselytes should be accepted from the peoples of Tadmor and Kardu
Apparently, Haggai was on good terms with the political leaders of his time, Zarubbabel the Governor under the Persian King Darius I as well as Joshua the High Priest. There is some evidence that he saw in the weakness of Darius and Persia an opportunity to re-establish a Davidic monarchy:
On that day, says the Lord of hosts, I will take you, O Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel, says the Lord, and make you like a signet ring; for I have chosen you, says the Lord of Hosts — Haggai 2:23

From a RPG perspective, there are a lot of things that can be mined out of this.

First and foremost is a traditional Keep on the Borderland kind of set-up with a religious and political undertone not normally found in such set-ups. Normally, the “Bright Empire” collapsed a long time ago and the remnants are either trying to hold on to or are trying to restore what was once Civilized Lands overtaken by the Wilderness. In this particular case, the Keep is manned by a conquered people of a different faith than the Empire. In addition, that Empire is in process of collapsing (with the peoples of Tadmor and Kardu in process of abandoning ship). Thus, ambitious PCs could take advantage of the situation and cause all kinds of mischief.

Second is the idea of the Signet Ring. Admittedly, Haggai uses this image as a simile, but making such an item a relic would be like fuel to the fire in a set-up like that above. Imagine all of the various factions that want to get a hold of the Signet Ring in order to impose their political will on the growing chaos of a collapsing Empire…

Finally, we come to what is probably the most fiddly thing that can be mined from the Book of Haggai: a Lunar Calendar. One of the reasons that we can confidently place Haggai in Jerusalem in 520 B.C. is because he prefaces his three prophetic statements with dates. While the Jews used a lunisolar calendar (which combined cycles of both the sun and the moon) for the purposes of an RPG world, in would be easier to simply use a Lunar Calendar. This shouldn’t be too hard, given the fact that a typical lunar month on earth is approximately 30 days. Basing an FRPG world on a Lunar Calendar shouldn’t be much of a stretch. The fiddly bits come with what one can do with the waxing and waning of the moon.

I mention this because I was going through some dusty back-up discs and found a digital copy of Avalon Hill’s Dragon Pass which uses the phases of the moon to affect the forces of Tarsh (aka the Lunar Empire). The Book of Haggai suggests that one of the major differences between the two religions is the use of a Lunar Calendar because of a dependence upon the lunar cycle for effective magic use. The collapse of the Empire might actually be predicated on a change in the lunar cycle (which could be a long term mystery to be solved by the players).

As I have said multiple times before: the Bible (especially the OT) proves over and over again to be as much as a font of inspiration for FRPGs as anything in Appendix N.

Saturday, December 9, 2017

Saintly Saturday: Conception of the Theotokos & Ever-Virgin Mary

Today is the Feast of the Conception of the Theotokos & Ever-Virgin Mary. Yes, you read that right: the Orthodox Church is celebrating a sexual act today and glorifying the result of the act. Western Christianity, for better or worse, is heavily influenced by St. Augustine when it comes to sex and he had a major problem with it. In contrast, the East has always had a far more positive view of the marriage bed:
And how become they one flesh? As if you should take the purest part of gold, and mingle it with the other gold; so in truth here also the women as it were receiving the richest part fused by pleasure, nourishes it and cherishes it, and throughout contributing her own share, restores it back to the man. And the child is a sort of bridge so that the three become on flesh, the child connecting, on either side, each to each… What then? When there is not child, will they not be two? Not so, for their coming together has this effect; it diffuse and commingles the bodies of both. And as one who has poured ointment into oil has made the whole one; so in truth is it also here — St. John Chrysostom, On Marriage and Family Life.
Notice the bed...

The origin of this feast, of course, is not to be found in the Bible. Rather, it reflects the story told in the Protoevangelium of James. This brings up a common theme with anti-Christian apologetics, that there were lots of books written in the first couple of centuries after Christ about Christianity and that many of them were “banned,” “suppressed,” or “concealed.” Yes, there are a bunch of books. A lot of them are heretical. A lot of them do not share the tight focus of the New Testament: the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ. Some of them were written by people who did not know Christ or his Disciples.

A fact that often gets lost in the shuffle is that the Bible was compiled over the course of almost three centuries. The first time we see the books of the bible listed as we know it today was in the fourth century by St. Athanasius the Great. Even he considered books outside this list to be “good for reading.” Examples include the Letters of Clement, The Shepherd of Hermas and the Protoevangelium of James. Some were even read in context of Church Services; however, ultimately, none of these made it into the Bible for a variety of reasons.

This illustrates an important axiom when it comes to the Bible: the New Testament was written by Christians for Christians. They had every right to determine what was going to be in the New Testament and what wasn’t.

This axiom is actually very relevant today in context of D&D because, living in a Golden Age of RPGs as we do, there is a proliferation of different versions of the game. Just in the last couple of months, for example, I have produced three. Not only do we have 0e, 1e, 2e, 3e, 3.5e, 4e and 5e but we have of the various iterations in the world of retro-clones and their ilk.

Imagine for a moment someone who doesn’t play RPGs comes in to say that Rune Quest was “suppressed” and represents true Dungeons & Dragons. While the history of Rune Quest has its origins in D&D, it is rarely accepted by those of us who actually play these games as D&D.

The axiom above is applicable to D&D in the sense that these games are written by gamers and for gamers. Therefore, we, to a large extent, get to determine what is and isn’t “D&D.” I will grant from a legal POV this isn’t entirely true because there are legal ramifications for using “Dungeons & Dragons” on a product without permission from WotC, but you can’t tell me the phrase “We’re playing D&D tonight” cannot be applied to anything from 0e to S&W to LL to Pathfinder to 4e to 5e. Despite all of the edition wars that have been fought over the years, ultimately, it is we who play the game that really determine what is and isn’t ‘D&D.’

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Isometric Map Experiment

Of all the iconic and popular TSR modules, the one I probably dislike the most is I6: Ravenloft. While it reads like a pretty decent dungeon crawl with some nice innovations (like the different goals of the Count and his variable locations through the castle, etc.), I have always found it to be unplayable. 

The reason for this is simple: trying to read and make sense of that isometric map gives me a headache. I actually tried to run Ravenloft once in a session and practically abandoned the module in favor of making stuff up on the spot because that was far more enjoyable that trying to figure out where everything was on the map.

Ever since the release of Ravenloft, I have avoided isometric maps like the plague. I would even be tempted to say that I hate them because they render otherwise good material into real or digital toilet paper. I say almost because I will certainly admit that a well done isometric map is a pretty thing to look at. I will also concede that I have wondered if there aren't times when an isometric map could actually do a better job at the table of presenting certain ideas.

As I am gearing up to actually do my own version of ToEE, I got an idea that might very well fall into this category: it is a four story tall room with entrances on all four stories. As an experiment, I ventured to produce an isometric map. I then produced the exact same map in a more traditional way to see which of the two did a better job.

Please note: these two maps are not finished products. I kept the maps relatively simple so that I could easily wrap my head around both versions; however, as rough drafts of an idea I think they both do a very good job of being proofs of concept.

Putting aside which one is "prettier," because I am not really interested in that at this point, which one would you rather have at the table to run a game?

Sunday, December 3, 2017

It's Re-Imagination Time!

As those who have followed this blog over the years are probably aware, my favorite TSR module of all time is T1:The Village of Hommlet. There really is no contest. It is one of the very few TSR modules I have actually ran as a Referee and it is the only one I have ran multiple times. I have even re-skinned it on numerous occasions. Headwaters in my Lost Colony Campaign started life as the map from T1.

It should come as no surprise, then, that I was sore disappointed when T1-4: The Temple of Elemental Evil finally made its way to publication. While I have used the surface temple map as an entrance to other dungeons, I have never actually bothered to run it outside of a failed attempt at a solo campaign from some summer when I was in college and was desperate for some gaming.

Therefore, it has been the TSR module I have most wanted to re-imagine a la Slave Pits of Abhoth are to A1: Slave Pits of the Undercity and The Caves of Cormakir are to B2: The Keep on the Borderland. I have drawn maps, re-skinned Druids as elemental monsters and fiddled with the idea for years. Unfortunately, nothing has ever really inspired me to go beyond tinkering.

While I have been working on my various alternate versions of SWCL, I have been trying to wrack my brains as to what kind of adventure I could write up to support SWCL since it has set up permanent residency in my gamer heart and mind. It occurred to me that I could write up a mega-dungeon based on maps I’ve done in the past and ran in my Lost Colonies Campaign (with mixed results, thus justifying the re-write). It also occurred to me that these maps could be the foundation of my version of ToEE. Once I had that thought, ideas just started flowing.

The first big idea, the one where this will most obviously be a re-imagining, is to ditch the 4-part European elemental system and replace it with the 5-part Asian system. In terms of gaming, it offers a lot of world-building and factional goodness that the 4-part system lacks. For example, each element has two “opposites,” one element it likes to work with and another that likes to work with that element. Therefore, there is a given structure to motivations and factional disputes that is really easy to re-skin for use in an RPG.

There are also a bunch of associations that are made with each element that are not necessarily obvious at first glance, but not only make some sense but suggest a much richer elemental creature catalog than that suggested by a 4-part elemental structure. For example, here are how the animal associations are described:
Wood = Scaly
Fire = Feathers
Earth = Human
Metal = Fur
Water = Shelled
Given that we are talking about a corruption of nature, this gives me the ability to assign two different archetypal creatures to each element: one is ideal and the other is corrupt:
Wood = Dragonborn/Troglodyte
Fire = Kenku/Dire Corby
Earth = Human/Humanoid
Metal = Ratling/Wererat
Water = Crabmen/Spiders and Driders
Once you start skinning these creatures in elemental clothes and add in other related creatures this very quickly becomes a fertile ground for all kinds of ideas.

Finally, there is one really punny idea that really started this ball rolling and one that as an Old Grognard I cannot resist: Hermit Crabmen.

Saturday, December 2, 2017

Saintly Saturday: The Prophet Habakkuk

Today is the Feast of the Prophet Habakkuk. Not much is known about this Prophet, because, unlike almost every other prophet, his book does not give any biographical information. Several things can be gleaned from Scripture, however. He speaks of the Chaldeans and therefore places him at or about the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians. There is also a book popularly known as Bal and the Dragon and is understood to be apocryphal by the Protestants and deuterocanonical by the Catholics. In the Orthodox Christian tradition, it is included in the book of Daniel. Habakkuk is preparing a meal and is approached by an angel who tells him to make enough for two. He does so and then is taken by the angel to the pit where Daniel has been imprisoned with the lions. The second meal is lowered to Daniel and Habakkuk is returned home.

The Book of Habakkuk is one of my favorites. He is one of the only Prophets to directly challenge God:
O Lord, how long shall I cry,
And You will not hear?
Even cry out to You, “Violence!”
And You will not save.
Why do You show me iniquity,
And cause me to see trouble?
For plundering and violence are before me;
There is strife, and contention arises.
Therefore the law is powerless,
And justice never goes forth.
For the wicked surround the righteous;
Therefore perverse judgment proceeds.
How many of us have said something like this to God? Here is one of His prophets giving us voice.

It is also short, so it is not that difficult of a read from a time perspective and yet is one of the most challenging book in Scripture because of all the amazing imagery he uses. Check out these verses from Chapter 3:
God came from Teman, the Holy One from Mount Paran.
His glory covered the heavens, and the earth was full of his praise.
The brightness was like the sun; rays came forth from his hand, where his power lay hidden.
Was your wrath against the rivers, O Lord? Or your anger against the rivers, or your rage against the sea,when you drove your horses, your chariots to victory?
You brandished your naked bow, sated were the arrows at your command.
You marched through the land in indignation;
You trampled the nations in anger.
You went forth for the salvation of Your people,
For salvation with Your Anointed.
Chapter 3 is actually acknowledged to be a song and, believe it or not, the Orthodox Church actually uses it as the basis for many of her of hymns. Metaphorically, this whole chapter speaks to the incarnation of Christ. He comes from the Virgin (the mountain) and conquers the nations as the Anointed One (which is what “Christ” means). Growing up I hated Christmas, and this hymn made me look past my own pain and appreciate the awesome nature of the Feast.

From the perspective of an RPG, consider this description of the Chaldeans from Chapter 1:
Their horses are swifter than leopards, more fierce than the evening wolves; their horsemen press proudly on.
Yea, their horsemen come from afar; they fly like an eagle swift to devour.
They all come for violence; terror of them goes before them. They gather captives like sand.
Imagine that as the description for a monster type. Imagine that as the basis for the main baddies of a campaign world. Is there a FRPG monster that fits this bill? One of the more mundane possibilities would be Worg riding Goblins. Or would you just make something up whole cloth?