Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Lost Colonies Session 9

This was a happy pre-Christmas session that saw all our wayward players able to make it to the table after some absence. For those that had set up activities for their characters while they were gone, I rewarded their efforts with small special abilities. Tykris had spent time in the church tending to the sick, so I granted him the ability to heal anybody 1 hp per day. In addition, should he be able to use an action the round immediately following a character's death, I gave him the ability to allow that character a chance to Save vs. Death to be stabilized unconscious at 1 hp. Arkmed the Dwarf had been apprenticing with the bronze workers at the Dwarven colony north of Headwaters. I gave him the ability to craft bronze. If he gathered enough bronze, he could craft anything he desired between sessions. At the beginning of each session, he gets to roll a die to see if the task is complete. Turgon the Magic User has been collecting scrolls and tomes for a library. Should he have a specific question about something the party does not know and is willing to put in the research time, he has a chance to find the answer in his library.

The beginning of the session had the veterans of the party doing trial and error with some of the magic items they had found in the hoard of the giant winged ape. This is an aspect of the game I truly enjoy. As utilitarian as an Identify spell might be, it isn't nearly as gratifying as figuring out what an item does by actually using it. Indeed, there are still abilities yet to be discovered with some of the items.

Once the magic items had been distributed and treasure divided and spent, Dn. Goram insisted that he had delayed replying to the summons of his bishop too long. There were murders taking place in the City (now dubbed Trisagia) that he had been asked to investigate. The party agreed to travel with him, though they left their henchman behind (and this will become important at a later date). They attached themselves to a caravan and arrived in Trisagia with very little incident ten days later (sometimes random encounters randomly turn up nothing whatsoever...)

Of interest to me, the players have taken a decidedly religious demeanor in their play. They tithed to the church in Headwaters, gave a couple of gifts to the cathedral when they arrived and also spent some time giving out alms to the beggars they encountered in the bazaar. We role played the encounter with Bishop Jova and everyone got into their roles and seemed to enjoy themselves. Jova informed them that the murders took place almost exclusively in the slums. He was having a difficult time convincing the upper class and the local guard to act. Thus, he called the party in hopes of finding out what was going on.

Jova was also keen on one of the objects that the party found in the treasure hoard of the giant winged ape — an icosahendron with strange writing and symbols. He insisted that it was a map to an ancient city once inhabited by a people ancient to those that the colonists encountered upon their arrival on the continent. He openly wondered if there was a connection between that city and those who wore the golden masks.

Turgon then set out to meet with his mentor at the Magic College and Hamlen set about trying to find information from some prostitutes. Turgon learned that the expert on the ancient peoples of the continent was not currently in the city and that no one had seen the king in public for over a month. Hamlen found himself a one armed, one legged prostitute who was willing to tell him what she had seen — some kind of ghoulish monster collecting bodies and taking them into the necropolis at the edge of the city. Hamlen then took pity on her, paid her far more than he had offered and promised to return and take her to Headwaters with him should she so desire.

The rest of the evening was spent exploring the necropolis where the party encountered both hostile and friendly undead. They learned that something untoward was happening in an abandoned castle in the necropolis. They subsequently fought their way to the highest tower where they found a mask wearing necromancer sacrificing the drained blood from several corpses for some unknown ritual. In a tense battle with copious uses of Hold Person, smoke bombs, mirror image and fire and oil as well as the appearance of a lot of zombies, the party defeated the necromancer.

Hamlen then dragged the body into the magic circle the necromancer was using in his ritual, and slit the corpse's throat. As blood hit the floor, the circle glowed red, the entire castle shook and a low groan emanated from the bowels of the tower. Having barely survived the encounter with the necromancer, the party decided retreat.

A Kernel of an Idea

The other day I was reading a prayer which listed a number of things that God has done for us throughout the history of salvation. One of these mentioned was that He shattered the gates of brass. This brought to mind a hymn the Orthodox Church sings during the Vespers of Pascha (Easter):

Today, Hades groaning cries out, “It would have been better for me if I had not received the One born of Mary, for He came upon me and destroyed my power. He shattered the gates of brass and the souls which I held captive of old He resurrected as God.” Glory, O Lord, to Your Cross and Your Resurrection!

This image comes from Psalm 107:16, "For He crushed the gates of brass and shattered the bars of iron.” Read in context, from the perspective of of Christ (justified by verse 20, "He sent His Word and healed them, and delivered them from corruption"), it portrays the lost souls from the beginning of time shackled in Hades freed from their bonds by the crucified Christ.

This got me thinking, since my mind has been on world-building of late, about how to translate this image into a fantasy RPG setting. My initial thoughts would make it an urban campaign, because the image of the shattered gates requires some kind of limited space. The city could be called by several names (all derivatives of Hades or Hell): Adys, Adoon, Uffern, Kolasy. The city lies on a plain in the Land of Nod, where demons freely roam.

Many years ago, a dead man, who was also the Living God was brought to the city and broke down the Brass Gate — the only way out of the city into the Land of Nod. Thousands, if not millions poured out of the gate and few have ever returned.

Those living in the city are lost souls who, out of fear, forgetfulness or coercion choose to remain. The city could contain all the classic urban fantasy tropes including a megadungeon beneath the city that promises vast amounts of wealth to those that dare to delve its depths.

Players would play characters that forget that they are dead and forget who they were and what they did. As they adventure, the Referee could leave clues about who these characters really are. Character death would be relative. Raise dead could be readily available for those willing to pay the price. The underlying goal of the game would be getting through the Gates of Brass. This quest could be accomplished via a classic sandbox campaign where the city itself is the campaign world, or for those willing to do the work, could be as complicated as remembering their real selves (most probably horrible people who have rejected God and his creation whole sale).

I don't know if I'd ever actually produce such a campaign world, but I enjoyed the kernel enough that I thought I'd share.

Monday, December 28, 2009

An Experimental Map

I am a big fan of celtic knots and was wondering how one might look and function as a dungeon map. This is designed to be a pair of identical sub-levels in any existing dungeon. The entire map radiates of magic.

1) Entrance. At the center of this circular room is a set of spiral stairs going up. All the doors are of the same smooth gray material, open whenever anyone approaches within 5 feet and close when when no one is within 5 feet.

2) These rooms are featureless. The doors are similar to Room 1 except that they do not automatically open. The 'T' at the center of the room indicates a trigger for a teleportation device that teleports everyone in the room to the corresponding room in the other identical sub-level.

3) These rooms function as Room 2; however on the wall without any doors are four levers. They are colored Green, Blue, Orange and Black. Currently they are all in the down position. Unless the Referee decides otherwise, they have no function.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Merry Christmas

But you O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, the least of the clans of Judah, from you will come for me a future ruler of Israel whose goings forth have been from old, from everlasting — Micah 5:1-2

O House of Ephratha, the city that is holy, the glory of the prophets, prepare your house, for therein the Virgin will give birth to God — Prosomia of Tone 2

Your nativity, O Christ our God, has caused the light of knowledge to rise upon the world. For therein the worshippers of the stars were by a star instructed to worship You, the very Sun of Righteousness, and to know You as Orient from on high. Glory to You, O Lord. — Apolytikion of Christmas

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Lost Colonies Session 8

There are two things that struck me about this session. The first had to do with maps. When exploring the ziggurat that seemed to be the source of raids against trade caravans headed to and from Headwater, the players took care to make a map and make notes of what they did not want to tangle with while only two players were available. This week, we had a fuller slate of players and a random roll produced an NPC magic user newly arrived with the first caravan seen in some time. The party hired him on and retained the services of the surviving mercenary they had with them last session.

The players then proceeded to take out the map and study it, planning their next assault based on what they had seen before. This delighted me, as this is an aspect of the old ways that (being a bit of a map geek) I truly adore. The party was well rewarded for their efforts — the tactics that they used as a result of their map worked brilliantly.

This leads me to my second observation. The party tackled a couple of monsters that they probably had no business trying to take down, and they succeeded because they used tactics and took advantage of terrain to great effect. Older versions of D&D allow for this — the system is mechanically wide open enough to allow players to be creative in combat situations. The Referee, in turn, is free to make ad hoc decisions on a case by case basis as to how much such creativity affects the situation. In other words, as a Referee I was free to reward the players for their planning, foresight, cunning and creativity. Please note: the creatures they attacked would have easily killed the entire party in a straight fight, and even with all that planning, forethought, cunning and creativity had it not been for a couple of lucky rolls, one or more characters would have died. Thus, the players came out knowing that they had truly succeeded on their own merit.

In my own experience, this is in contrast to combat in 3.5. The mechanics actually get in the way of the kind of creativity displayed by my players. When every aspect of combat is covered by a universal mechanic and a character is not a combat specialist, the mechanics themselves make creative play too risky to even try ("that sounds great, but the DC is still going to a 20"). I have even witnessed a combat where the mechanics actually made it impossible for the party to win. Understanding this, the DM allowed the party to succeed by fiat. This destroyed all sense of accomplishment and rendered the whole exercise meaningless.

The party defeated a pair of monstrous ape-like creatures with creative use of spells and coordinated attacks. The NPC magic user, Xerxes, proved to be extremely useful — his Charm Person and Light spells were used to great effect. He was also fun to role play — he comes off as an arrogant academic that plays well against the bravado of the party.

As an example of the creativity used by the party, they took the head of one of the ape-creatures and cast a Light spell on it. They then used it to intimidate a couple of groups of humanoids (I rewarded the party with morale checks, one of which proved critical).

This was the first time the party managed to find some significant treasure, including a couple of things that are magical. The party has not yet had the courage to try anything out, so we shall see what comes of that.

There are also a some new rumors that the party has come across. Dn. Guron has been in communication with his bishop. It seems that there is a single reference in an obscure scroll in the Church's archives to a lost city deep in the Giant Insect Jungle that is somehow connected to the mask the party found in session 4. There has also been a rash of murders in the city that has the bishop concerned. In addition, the party was able to confirm a rumor from the recent caravan arriving in Headwater — the orcs are no longer at the Monastery. The party noted tracks going into the Monastery, but none coming out.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

World Building Part 9

Magic Items

You have given your sash to your flock, O Virgin most glorious, as a bond that is most secure, which carefully keeps us from all kinds of danger and which by divine power preserves us from defeat by adversaries — from the Aposticha for August 31

Within the tradition of the Church, there are plenty of things that can be translated into a fantasy RPG world as "magic" items. These can be broken down into three broad categories: sanctified items, holy objects and relics.

Sanctified Items

Several times during the year, various foodstuff is brought to the church to be blessed and sanctified. These include, but are not limited to: oil, grapes, bread, water, and cakes. In game terms, these items, when consumed, might heal a hit point or bestow a bless spell for a certain amount of time, etc. Most of these items would have limited availability, because the services that sanctify them occur only once or twice a year. Thus, a fantasy world could include a calendar with several feasts (the Orthodox Church has twelve major feasts besides Pascha, aka Easter). Foodstuff is usually blessed on or around several of these feasts. This could add an interesting dimension to any RPG world.

Holy Objects

Throughout the Orthodox world there are miracle working icons. For example, at the Iveron Monastery on Mt. Athos there is a icon of the Theotokos (the Virgin Mary) that was stabbed with a sword by a pirate. The sword hit the Theotokos in the chin and the icon began to bleed. The encrusted blood is still there today. Other icons are known to "weep" — myrrh flows from the eyes of the saint depicted. In addition, there are several objects, such as the sash worn by the Theotokos from the hymn above, that were worn or used by various saints.

In game terms, these could act as spell storing devices that can hold and then cast a number of divine spells a day. The myrrh from a weeping icon, when placed on a wound, might bestow a healing spell of some kind. The use of this myrrh could be limited to once per day or week per person. Other items, such as shoes or belts could act as variations on regular magic items — like boots of leaping or a ring of protection. This way, however, the item has a name and a backstory.


In churches around the world, bones and body parts of saints are kept within churches and places of pilgrimage. As macabre as this sounds, it has to do with Christian anthropology, which has a holistic understanding of the human person. The body is an integral part of who we are. A saint has been transfigured by God and therefore their body — their remains — have been imbued with holiness. One of the most dramatic examples of this can be seen in Thessoloniki with the body of St. Demetrios. His body continuously exudes myrrh. So, when you go to his reliquary, you are assaulted by this sweet perfume that smells better than anything in the world.

In game terms, these would be more along the lines of artifacts that would be able to do miraculous things; however, there should be a danger associated with using them — if used in a selfish or evil way, curses, bad luck, or extra attention from evil organizations or creatures should quickly follow. On top of that, there should be no end to beings that would want to try and steal or destroy such objects given the opportunity.


This is a difficult subject to tackle in a fantasy RPG, given the metaphysical, spiritual and practical ramifications of including it in a game. However, I wouldn't discourage a player who wanted to play a character for whom taking communion on a regular basis was part of their story. Personally, I like to reward that kind of effort in my players and this reward often takes the form of home-brew mechanics, XP rewards or special abilities.

In terms of communion, I would want to do something that encouraged players to make it a part of their characters' lives without it breaking the game. Personally, I allow characters who have gone to the trouble to taking communion to have one re-roll during a session. This gives players another expendable resource that can increase the tension of a session, be fun, and not overpower the game.

Friday, December 11, 2009

World Building Part 8

The Church

Historically, the Church has existed in one of two conditions — tolerance or persecution. I use the word tolerance because even in times when the Church is seemingly in power, its fundamental principles come into direct conflict with those who are primarily motivated by money and power. I can't begin to count the number of times bishops came into conflict with Christian kings and emperors. Even under the best of circumstances, bishops were exiled for standing on principle. Also take a look at 21st century America where a lot of people these days are offended by the words "Merry Christmas."

In a fantasy setting, therefore, one must make a decision as to which condition the Church is in and if in persecution, what kind. Prior to the Roman Empire becoming Christian, it was largely illegal to be a Christian. This situation usually played itself out by trying to force Christians to make sacrifices to images of the Emperor. Failing to do so was seen as treason. There were periods when Rome actively sought out Christians to put them to trial, and there were times when it passively did so. Those killed were called martyrs — witnesses. Christians would take and bury these martyrs and then hold services around their graves. This is the origin of churches being named after saints — when churches were allowed to be built, they built them around those places where martyrs were buried. Thus, that was the church of saint so-and-so who is buried underneath. To this day, Orthodox churches keep relics of saints inside their altars in memory of this practice.

Both the Chinese and Japanese persecuted the Church as a negative foreign influence. The revolutions in France and Russia persecuted the Church as part of the old order. Although Islam has seen Christians as "people of the book", it still persecutes Christians as infidels.

In terms of organization, the Church has four orders of ordination — the laity (yes, baptism is an ordination!), the deaconate, the priesthood and the episcopate. In terms of the clergy, bishops are administrators, priests are teachers and deacons are servants. For about the first millennia, one was ordained to a particular order for life. In modernity, one becomes a deacon, then a priest, then a bishop. In the ancient Church, all orders allowed married clergy — though one was not allowed to marry after ordination. In the Orthodox Church, this still holds true for Deacons and Priests, but all bishops must be celibate. In the Orthodox Church, women have never been ordained to either the priesthood or the episcopate; however, they were allowed to become deaconesses. This practice existed through the ninth century and has seen some movement towards restoration in the 20th (Greece has allowed them to be ordained for women's monasteries).

For the purposes of a fantasy RPG, the order of clergy best suited for adventuring is the Deacon. Bishops are tied to a city. Priests are tied to a parish. Deacons can be tied to a Bishop. Thus, a Deacon can be ordained by a bishop for the purpose of adventuring. Thus, the class has a built in patron which can be a source for adventures. This patron can be as meddlesome and demanding (or not) as a Referee wishes them to be.

Using this set-up, the Cleric class can come in three flavors, only one of which actually does any adventuring. This severs class level from church hierarchy. In other words, a 1st level Cleric who is a bishop would have authority over a 9th level Cleric who is a deacon. So, priests and bishops need not be any higher level than 1st to have the kind of respect and authority that their positions demand. Thus, it is possible to have a fantasy world where divine magic has very little broad impact. Spells like Raise Dead would be extremely rare, if accessible at all.

In terms of the end-game, a Deacon could still build a stronghold. In a church structure where they are ordained as a deacon for life, they would attract a priest to fulfill that role. Otherwise, they could be elevated to the priesthood or episcopate and take over. The former, however, is more representative of the historical church. Monasteries are led by abbots — which are not necessarily priests. Thus, a stronghold built by a deacon would see the deacon as the spiritual leader and any priest that comes to serve fulfilling that particular liturgical role.

For those that use such things, Domains can be explained by way of religious orders dedicated to a particular saint. The Domains would reflect the life of the saint and their path towards God. Thus, Domains like Chaos, Evil, Madness, Death, etc. need not be left out of a game. For example, St. Paul persecuted the Church prior to his conversion. Thus, a fantasy religious order dedicated to a saint akin to St. Paul might have as one of their Domains Evil or Death. St. Paul transformed his emnity towards the Church into evangelism across the Mediterranean world. Thus, clerics dedicated to his order would be expected to transform the Domain of Evil or Death in a similar way.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

World Building Part 7

The God Man

That which was not assumed is not healed; but that which is united to God is saved — St. Gregory the Theologian (also known as Gregory of Nazianzus)

This beautifully succinct statement by St. Gregory sums up the dogmatic necessity for understanding Christ to be both God and Man. If He is not God, then we have no means to be healed. If He is not Man, then we have not been healed.

Thus, in a fantasy setting, the Christ figure must emulate perfect divinity and perfect humanity. This means that He cannot become a God either through His excellence or by God descending upon Him. This scenario does not assume the totality of human nature — it ignores conception, growth in the womb and childhood. Therefore, all of these things would be left out of Christ's salvific activity. All of our experience and existence must be assumed in order to save it. This includes death.

The Cross

Psalm 22, written some 300 years prior to the invention of crucifixion, describes in detail Christ on the cross. Christ tells His disciples multiple times that He must be turned over to the Gentiles to be killed. In iconography, the Nativity depicts the manger as a deep, dark cave; His bed as a tomb; and His swaddling clothes as a burial garment. In other words, the whole point of the Incarnation is the crucifixion — the Christ must die in order to destroy death.

In terms of a fantasy world, we must understand the metaphor of the cross:
The message of the cross is folly to those who are on the way to ruin, but for those of us on the road to salvation it is the power of God. — 1 Corinthians 1:18

Crucifixion is a heinous means of killing someone. It is designed to torture and kill slowly over several days. The amount of stress it puts on the body is extreme and it takes advantage of our own instinctual desire to survive in order to prolong agony. It was a death sentence reserved for the lowest of the low — outsiders and criminals. The Romans wouldn't dream of subjecting a Roman citizen to such a death because it was too horrible and too humiliating even for someone who betrayed the Empire.

God, in the person of Jesus Christ, was not only willing to subject Himself to such humiliation and horror, but transformed the instrument of death and torture into a symbol of everlasting life.

Thus, the cross need not be a cross in terms of a fantasy world. In fact, I would argue that we have lost the sense of divine irony that is the cross — we no longer see it as a device of extreme torture — and that using another device would actually more effectively communicate the true meaning of the cross. The holy symbol of those who follow the Christ is the instrument of torture used to kill the Christ. For example, in the Chronicles of Narnia, Aslan is shaved, tied down upon a rock and killed by a knife. The holy symbol could be any combination of these instruments — the knife, the rock, or the ropes.

Of course the ultimate purpose of the crucifixion is the resurrection, the ascension into heaven and the enthronement at the right hand of the Father. Our human nature, in the person of Jesus Christ, is participating in the divine nature of God right now.

In terms of a fantasy world, this is the mechanism by which divine magic works. Clerics join themselves to the Body of Christ — the Church — and through their ordination have direct access to the power of God. Divine magic is a metaphor for the miracles of God worked through the people of God. The pseudo-Christian overtones of Cleric spells in 0e represent this quite well. It is all made possible because the Christ died and then took our humanity with Him to sit in glory and the right hand of the Father — in our humanity, we have access to His divinity.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

World Building Part 6

The whole of the Old Testament is full of stories that are impossible to import into a fantasy setting — they are too specific to the geography and culture of what we call the Middle East. There are, however, metaphors and motifs that you can hint at in a fantasy setting.

The Law

Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law by being cursed for our sake — Gal 3:13

St. Paul calls the Law a curse because its primary purpose to reveal to us our sin — our separation from God. No mere human being is capabe of fulfilling the Law, because we all sin. When compared to the Law, our lives are all a sinful mess. Even the greatest of us are cursed by the Law because they, too, sin. Thus, when we see ourselves and all of humanity from the perspective of the Law, it becomes very clear that we are incapable of saving ourselves — we need God, because only God can save.

In a fantasy setting, there can be any number of things that are constant reminders of the distance between fallen humanity and God. These coud be physical monuments that dot the landscape, they could be progressive mutations that are manifestations of sin, they could be monsters that are born of sins humans commit, etc. The underlying point is that sans God, humanity is cursed and that God has revealed this through the Law (or its fantasy analogy).


Therefore the Lord Himself eill give you a sign. Look, the virgin is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Emmanuel (God is With Us) — Isaiah 7:14

For the purposes of building a fantasy word, one only need to understand prophesy in terms of Christ. The OT actually tells us more about Christ than does the NT. Thus, prophesy can be hinted at with no real details (unless you feel so inclined) because they all predict Christ.

The Pre-Incarnate Christ

Then King Nabuchadnezzar was astonised and rose up quickly. He said to his counselors, "Was it not three men that we threw bound into the fire?" They answered the king, "True, O King." He replied, "But I see four men unbound, walking in the middle of the fire, and they ar not hurt; and the fourth has the appearnace of a god." — Daniel 3:24-25

There are several instances in the OT when a divine figure like that in Daniel 3:35, often call the Angel of the Lord, who the Fathers of the Church understand to be the Son of God before He became incarnate. In may cases, He prefigures the salvific action of the Incarnation, such as saving Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego from the fire.

In a fantasy setting, there can be a few flavor stories about the Angel of the Lord — the pre-Incarnate Christ — making dramatic appearances to save people who are faithful to God prior to the Incarnation.

Types of Christ

Whenever Moses held up his hand, Israel prevailed. But Moses' hands grew weary; so they took a stone and put it under him, and he sat on it. Aaron and Hur held up his hands, one on one side, and the other on the other side; so his hands were steady until the sun set. And Joshua defeated Amalek and his people — Exodus 17:11-13

Throughout the OT there are people and things that prefigure Christ. The most obvious of these is Moses. His upbringing as an Egyptian and his self-imposed exile made Moses an Other — though he was a Hebrew by heritage, he never lived among them. Despite this, he went to his people as a Hebrew to save them from slavery. God finally freed them by having death passover their households — marked with a cross of blood. Christ came to us as a human being, despite being the radical Other — God. He saves us from the slavery to sin and death by being crucified on a cross so that death is destroyed by death — it will pass over us.

In the above quote, Moses prefigures the crucifixion. The saving action of having his hands lifted is accomplished in cruciform by having Aaron and Hur hold up His hands. King David is annointed (oil poured over his head) as King. Christ and Messiah mean "the Annointed One."

For the sake of a fantasy setting, there can be any number of people who prefigure the Christ — the story can be as simple as the quote above. Someone secures victory over the forces of evil by an action that suggests the means of torture and death suffered by the Christ.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

World Building Part 5

The Flood

God looked at the earth: it was corrupt, for corrupt were the ways of all living things on earth. God said to Noah, "I have decided that the end has come for all living things, for the earth is full of lawlessness because of human beings. So I am now about to destroy them and the earth. Make yourself an ark — Gen 6:12-14

For those of us interested in creating a fantasy world based on Scripture, the Flood is problematic from the perspective that it wipes clean from the world a fantasy staple — the Nephilim (giants) and their monstrous children. It is also troublesome from the modern scientific point of view which understands millions of years of prehistory with all kinds of wildlife that were wiped out before they ever had a chance to board the ark.

At this point, I must emphasize the primary purpose of Scripture — the revelation of God. Although it has historical elements, many of which can be corroborated by archeology, the Bible is not an historical document. It is revelation. It answers the question, "Who is God?" and from a Christian perspective, "Who is Jesus Christ?" As such, the story of the flood needs to be understood from this perspective.

Note that the cause of corruption on earth is humanity. We have turned our back on God and have taken all of creation with us. But for the goodness of one man — the choice of Noah to seek to be with God — God would have allowed creation to plummet toward destruction and return to nothing. God allows us the freedom to choose Him or choose to reject Him. In Eden, God gave the garden to Adam. When Adam chose to turn His back on God, the garden was taken away. The story of the flood is the flip side of the Eden story. God was willing to take everything away from humanity. Noah chose to turn towards God. Thus, God allows His creation to continue to exist.

God spoke as follows to Noah and his sons, "I am now establishing my covenant with you and with your descendants to come, and with every living creature that was with you: birds, cattle and every wild animal with you; everything that came out of the ark, every living thing on earth. And I shall maintain my covenant with you: that never again shall all living things be destroyed by the waters of a flood, nor shall there ever again be a flood to devastate the earth" — Gen 9:8-11

Ultimately, the primary purpose for the story of the flood is the covenant made by God. When God makes a promise, He never breaks it. All of His promises have been and will be fulfilled. This metaphor can be found in iconography, where the ark has been equated with the Church. Christ fulfills God's promise to all of creation by becoming Incarnate and intimately uniting Himself to His creation. The Church becomes the safe haven from the storm of a fallen world.

When creating a fantasy world, the flood is necessary only in metaphor, not in actuality. There need to be humans that turn toward God, even in the midst of corruption and evil. God, in some way shape or form, will make covenants with His people. From a Christian perspective, these covenants will be fulfilled in the person of the Christ.

Friday, November 27, 2009

A Fist Full of Dice

I have a soft spot for Weapon vs AC tables. They are a remnant of the Chainmail rules and represent another level of tactical choice within combat. The problem with them has always been complexity — they just are too ungainly to use. Recently, I was looking at the Chainmail rules and had a bit of an "Aha" moment. The reason the Weapon vs AC tables work in Chainmail, is that the to hit number remains static. It doesn't matter who is wielding the weapon — that particular weapon will always need the same number on the die to hit that particular AC.

This is why Weapon vs AC tables have never transfered well into the alternate combat system in the LBBs, which went on to become the standard in later editions — the to hit number is determined by character class and level, not the weapon used. Thus, Weapon vs AC tables have since then consisted of a bunch of unwieldy to hit modifiers.

The secret, then, to using a Weapon vs AC table is to tweak the system so that weapons determine the to hit number, not character class and level. This can rather easily be done if, as in Ruins & Ronin (and 3rd ed), characters are given attack bonuses based on character class and level. Thus, on an attack roll a player totals the attack bonuses and penalties to the to hit roll and compares it to the target number provided by a Weapon vs AC table.

There is another option, however, and it is provided by the LBBs. When using the Chainmail combat system, characters would progress according to troop type as they gained levels. For example, a 4th level fighting man fought as a Hero. This progression resulted in more opportunities to hit, not in an easier number to hit. Thus, one way to utilize a Weapon vs AC table would be to translate the old LBB Chainmail combat classifications into number of d20s to roll per round. Despite the greater number of opportunities to hit, this system results in about the same number of hits, because the target numbers remain the same — I've run a number of simulations. If anything, at higher levels combat moves a tad bit faster and allows fighters to be a bit more powerful.

Besides the added tactical wrinkle, there is one big advantage to this rules tweek. The higher level a character gets, the more dice you get to throw. Personally, I have always enjoyed the tactile wonder of a fist full of dice and seeing them roll across the table.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Happy Thanksgiving

Just a quick thanks to everyone out there who's taken the time to read my ramblings, to those who've bothered to leave a comment, and to every one who's ever been involved in our hobby. My life has been enriched by all of you. I'd also like to share a quote from Alexander Schmemann, a great theological mind from the 20th century:

Thanksgiving is truly the first and essential act of man, the act by which he fulfills himself as man. The one who gives thanks is no longer a slave; there is no fear, no anxiety, no envy in adoration. Rendering thanks to God, one becomes free again, free in relation to God, free in relation to the world.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

World Building Part 4

My project continues...


There is one centrally important reality about humanity in Scripture — God made humanity in His image and likeness (Gen 1:26-7). As such, humanity has a special role within creation — we are God's representatives to creation and we represent creation to God. This is why when Adam and Eve fell, they took the rest of creation with them.

Thus the Lord God said to the serpent, "Because you have done this, you are cursed more than all cattle, and more than all the wild animals of the earth. On your breast and belly you shall go, and you shall eat dust all the days of your life. I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed. He shall bruise your head, and you shall be on guard for His heel.

This special role within creation still exists despite the fall. God has set up humanity in an adversarial role against the Adversary himself. He has given us the power to lift creation up to God — away from nothing and into life. As the personification of that nothing, the devil and his minions will try to lead us to pull creation back towards nothing. Since we have been endowed with the image and likeness of God, who is ultimately free, we have the freedom to choose which path we will follow.

When creating a fantasy RPG where their are a plethora of fantasy races from elves and dwarves to goblins and lizardmen, there arises a conundrum: what, exactly, is "humanity?" Or, more precisely, who is endowed with the image and likeness of God?

This can be handled in a number of different ways:

  1. All fantasy races are not human and play, to one degree or another, an adversarial role towards humanity. In terms of an RPG, this works better in a Sword & Sorcery-type world where players are going to have exclusively human characters.
  2. All fantasy races are human. The various differences in races have come about because of some expression of magic. In a world where sin can manifest itself physically, an orc represents humanity consumed by hate and violence. Half-breeds are easily explained in this manner. Worlds using this model allow players to have characters from a wide variety of fantasy races.
  3. All fantasy races represent the children born of the Nephilim and human women. This choice falls somewhere in between option 1 and option 2. In this setup, fantasy races all have a dark beginning and are more apt to side with their demonic origins than a normal human. As such, players would be free to play the exceptions — those that embrace their human origins as opposed to their demonic one. To a greater or lesser degree, these races would face distrust and prejudice from their human neighbors.

Each one of these choices has consequences in terms of moral dilemmas that will face players. Option 1 allows more freedom for players to slash their way through a bunch of orcs with little or no qualms — they are physical expressions of evil that need to be eradicated. Option 2 muddies the water quite a bit. Killing an orc is the equivalent of murdering a human being. Option 3 similarly muddies the water; however, this can be tempered by how one sees the choice of following the demonic or human path for fantasy races. If this choice is ongoing, than killing an orc is murder. If following the demonic path represents a choice where there is no going back, killing the orc is closer to option 1.

As you can see, there is quite a bit of flexibility in how to represent humanity in a fantasy setting — none of which requires a polytheistic world view.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

World Building Part 3

My project to produce a template from which to create a fantasy RPG world based on Scripture and Christianity continues:

The Fall

So the great dragon was cast out, that serpent of old, called the Devil and Satan, who deceives the whole world; he was cast to the earth, and his angels were cast out with him. — Revelations 12:9

The word Devil (diabolos in Greek) means 'the slanderer' or more literally 'the one who divides.' The word Satan means 'the adversary.' These are equated with the serpent from the Garden of Eden, who is (for the purposes of a fantasy RPG setting) is wonderfully called the great dragon. In Luke 10:18 Christ tells us that, "I saw Satan fall like lightening from heaven." In Isaiah 14:12, Satan is called the Day Star ("Lucifer" in Latin) which proceeds the rising of the sun. This takes on significance when put in context of Christ's title the Sun of Righteousness.

Given all of these images, the Devil was a being of high importance (usually understood as an archangel). He rebels against God by reaching for godhood:
'I will ascend into heaven; I will place my throne above the stars of heaven. I will sit on a lofty mountain, on the lofty mountain to the north. I will ascend above the clouds; I will be like the Most High.' — Isaiah 14: 13-14

In this rebellion he takes with him a group of angels. In doing so, he aligns himself with the nothingness from which creation comes. He becomes the personification of nothing. His actions try to pull creation away from God and back to the nothing from whence it came.

Then the serpent said to the woman, "You shall not die by death. For God knows in the day you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like gods, knowing good and evil." Genesis 3:4-5

As the serpent, Satan deceives Adam and Eve and gets them to follow in his sin of reaching for Godhood. When Eve gets her husband to eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, she and Adam sought knowledge. Specifically, they wanted the knowledge of evil — a world without God.

Thus, when creating a fantasy world, there needs to be an Adversary — a personification of Chaos bent on pulling the world away from God. Given the number of names associated with this being in Scripture, we are free name him according to the context of our world (translate "adversary" or "slanderer" into some version of elvish, for example). For purposes of world bulding, it is important to know that the name Adam means humanity. This story invites us to use it metaphorically. A fanstasy world does not need an Adam and an Eve per se; however it does need humanity to seek a world without God — the knowledge of evil. This pursuit is the result of a deception by the Adversary. To add flavor, one can use the metaphor suggested in Gensis 3:3. Eve tries to defend God by adding to the command of God to not eat of the tree of Knowledge of good and evil. She says to touch it is to die. Thus, the Adversary can use the good intentions of humanity to lead them to their fall — in trying to defend God, they come to know a world without God.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

World Building Part 2

I continue with my project to produce a template from which to create a fantasy RPG world based on Scripture and Christianity.


In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was unseen and without form and darkness was over the abyss; and the Spirit of God rushed upon the waters. — Genesis 1:1-2

The word used in the Greek to translate the word "created" (a word exclusively used for God) is episen — the root for the English words "poet" and "poetry." In other words, God the Poet created the world using His Word. As such, we are invited to interact with Scripture as one might interact with a poem — study the language, how it is used and play with the images of Scripture and its metaphors.

Law vs. Chaos

In this light, there are two interesting linguistic flavors found in Genesis 1:1-2 that not only are often lost in translation, but invite us to see the act of creation as a struggle against Chaos.

In the Hebrew, it is possible to translate the first line of Genesis as "When God created..." Thus, the second verse becomes more confrontational. Darkness, invisibility, void, the abyss, the deep (all words used in various translations of Gen 1:2) call to mind a roiling Chaos that is fighting against God as He begins to create. This image is reinforced by the Greek word used to describe the action of the Spirit — epephereto. Usually translated as "moving over" or "hovering," it has a hostile, confrontational connotation. It comes from the verb "to rush upon."

As reflected in later Jewish thought and ultimately Christian dogma, 2Mac 7:28 states, "Look at heaven and earth and see everything in them, and know that God made them out of nothing." Since creation, by its very nature, comes out of nothing, by nature it is doomed to return to nothing. Thus, the picture painted in Gen 1:1-2 can be understood in terms of the Law vs. Chaos dynamic in D&D. God wills creation to be according to His Word. The roiling Chaos that the Spirit moves against is the force that is struggling against God's will — it is trying to return creation to the nothing from whence it came. Thus, the three alignment system of D&D becomes a simple Us vs. Them schematic similar to that found in war games. The forces of Law side with God's will for creation to exist. The forces of Chaos strive to return creation to the nothing. Neutrals are willing to side with either Law or Chaos as it suits them (which calls into question the validity of having a Neutral alignment — one is either for or against God — but that is a topic for another day).

Keep in mind, Scripture has two different accounts of creation. This reality invites us to use different metaphors to describe the same truths. So, when imagining a creation story for a fantasy world, we are free to attach any kind of imagery to the creation story we want as long as the following are true:
  • The One God creates from nothing.
  • Sans God, creation returns to the nothing from whence it came.

Monday, November 16, 2009

World Building Part 1

In response to my meditations on Psalm 8, Rob Conley of Bat in the Attic had this to say:

As for the pagan aspect of my cosmology. I choose a more allegorical approach because I never been comfortable in portraying a fictional Christianity in any other than a version of our world.

Probably because I am history buff I am very much aware of the fact that part of the impact of Jesus Christ is that he was born in history, acted in historical times, and was witnessed as part of history. He wasn't some mystical figure out of some golden age like so many religions had at the time.

This got me thinking. I make no bones about being a Christian nor about my belief that despite an early nod to the Christian roots of Medieval Europe with the inclusion of the pseudo-Christian Cleric class, D&D took a sharp turn towards a polytheistic and pagan world-view that it not only hasn't been able to shake, but has been ingrained within the mechanics of the game itself. Thus, there is an inherent conflict between my faith and my favorite hobby. When confronted with the possibility of playing D&D with a Christian world-view, including Christ and all that He stands for, most of us who play D&D have balked at the idea — even those of us who are Christian.

Rob made me aware of how uncomfortable we all can be with taking the historical reality of Christ and all that He has done for humanity and seemingly reduce it to fantasy. Making a fantasy version of Zeus, Set, or any other number of pagan gods is much easier, because they float around in that pseudo-imaginary space called myth. To a certain degree, they are outside of history.

This fear and discomfort, I believe, is misplaced. God chose to reveal Himself through literature — through the writing of men and women who produced both the Old and the New Testaments. As such, He invites a creative and imaginative interaction.

So, it is quite possible that the real reason for our hesitation to play D&D from a Christian point of view is that no one has gone to the trouble of doing that creative leg work to make a template from which we can create fantasy worlds founded in Scripture.

As such, I am going to try and do just that. I will take a basic concept necessary for world building, examine what Scripture has to say about it and then strip it down to a skeletal form. Hopefully, what will emerge is a template that we who love to build fantasy worlds can use to create worlds based on Scripture and a Christian world-view. My first installment:

The Name of God

And the Lord said, "Say this to the people of Israel, 'I AM has sent me to you.'" — Exodus 3:15

When God reveals Himself to Moses in the burning bush and Moses asks God His name, God responds, "I AM." Note that this name is a sentence begging for a predicate — I AM . . . what? Scripture is then replete with names, attributes and titles that can all be plugged into God's name: the Most High God, King, Lord, Truth, Life, Longsuffering, Almighty, etc. We are invited to interact with God's name in exactly this manner.

Thus, when C.S. Lewis chose to portray his fantasy version of Christ as a lion named Aslan, he did so on very sound scriptural grounds. In a world of talking animals, it makes perfect sense to have Christ as a lion — the King. As long as the titles and attributes of God remain, the name of God given in Scripture actually invites us to create a name for him within the context of our fantasy worlds.

As a starting point, I offer several examples of the names, attributes and titles given to God roughly translated into other languages:

  • Mindenhato
  • Hollallrog
  • Trindod
  • Bendigaid
  • Heilig
  • Osios
  • Makarios
  • Szo
  • Golau
  • Vilagos
  • Bolesesseg
  • Santaidd
  • Ios
  • Mab

This is fertile ground that offers a huge variety of names that we can give God appropriate to Him within the context of a fantasy world of our own making.

Lost Colonies Session 7

This was one of those weeks where life intruded on just about everybody. As a result there were only three of us. This is when the strict use of time actually becomes extremely useful. During the campaign, I've insisted that the party be back in Headwaters at the end of every session and that for every two days that go by in real time, one day goes by in game time (giving us a week in game time between sessions). This house rule payed off this weekend, because it allowed the three of us to play with little effort. We merely came up with legitimate reasons why the other party members could not adventure and went about enjoying the rest of the evening.

Thus, Hamlin and Dn. Swibish decided to continue following up on the trade route rumors by attaching themselves to a caravan going to the city. They hoped to attract any raiders disturbing the trade and then follow them back into their lair. After some negotiations, they were set to begin their journey four days hence. They took advantage of the hiatus to go hunting in the Giant Insect Jungle. Due to judicious use of flaming oil and a dearth of good rolls on my part (nothing above an 8, including several 1s) our two stalwart adventurers managed to kill off an ankheg and loot its lair. They came away with a pile of semi-melted copper and silver which served as a nest for several intact eggs. They used the booty to order another set of chitin armor, several potions from the alchemist in trade for the eggs and managed to convince a local smith to smelt the huge hunk of silver and copper into coins.

Alidor informed the party that he had found a way to replace Grak's amputated forearm. He would require three things: a hunk of metal (the harder and more valuable the better), a smith who could forge the metal to his rigorous specifications and the bottle of silver liquid the party lost when they decided to take on the dragon. It was decided that silver from the ankheg lair would be used for this project, but the rest would have to wait until more members of the party were available.

Once the caravan headed out, the party set a trap for any raiders every night. They lit a fire and then set up a cold camp some 50 yards away in a blind. Thus, when the attack did come, they were able to ambush the raiders and take down what they assumed to be their leader very quickly with concentrated attacks. The rest failed their morale and ran. The "leader" turned out to be a 7' tall ape-like creature with claws and fangs.

The party then tracked the raiders back to an ancient Ziggurat covered in vegetation. They then proceeded to make raids themselves. I find it very interesting that this party has done very well at taking advantage of tactical situations and mechanics. They concentrate their attacks so as to take down larger opponents quickly, they use charges whenever possible and liberally shatter shields to avoid damage. To be honest, the reason for this is primarily because they've learned that if they don't, I will — they know how deadly an encounter can become if they get tactically lazy.

Although they did successfully defeat quite a few foes, including several humanoids and another ape, they did not explore all of the ziggurat and ran into a very large four-armed ape-like creature which was too much for the small party to handle. Our session time ran out and everybody headed back toward Headwater, including the merchant (who has turned out to be quite the coward).

During their travels, the party noticed a buildup of orcs at the ruined monastery. I'll be interested to see what the party chooses to do next session. Some of my vague background plots are beginning to move and I'm interested to see if the party picks any of them up.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Veterans Day

You who live in the shelter of the Most High, who abide in the shadow of the Almighty, will say to the Lord, "My refuge and my fortress; my God, in whom I trust." For he will deliver you from the snare of the fowler and from the deadly pestilence; he will cover you with his pinions, and under his wings you will find refuge; his faithfulness is a shield and buckler. You will not fear the terror of the night, or the arrow that flies by day, or the pestilence that stalks in darkness, or the destruction that wastes at noonday. A thousand may fall at your side, ten thousand at your right hand, but it will not come near you. You will only look with your eyes and see the punishment of the wicked. Because you have made the Lord your refuge, the Most High your dwelling place, no evil shall befall you, no scourge come near your tent. For he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways. On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone. You will tread on the lion and the adder, the young lion and the serpent you will trample under foot. Those who love me, I will deliver; I will protect those who know my name. When they call to me, I will answer them; I will be with them in trouble, I will rescue them and honor them. With long life I will satisfy them, and show them my salvation. Amen.

— Psalm 90(91)

Monday, November 9, 2009

Things that Make Me Go Hmmm...

Over at Grognardia, James meditated on his mild discomfort with what he called "double-dipping" characteristics — those that have both a game mechanic and give XP bonuses (such as Dex for Thieves). In response, Matthew Slepin of Wheel of Samsara wrote this:

If you don't like the idea of XP benefits for high stats (and I do not like that at all; nor requirements for certain classes) then I think you're left with two rational decisions. Either make all the stats mean something or dump them.

This got me thinking: what if all the characteristics were dispensed of? All mechanical bonuses associated with characteristics could then be tied to classes. This got my creative juices flowing and I came up with the following:

  • Archer: This class is good with ranged weapons. They receive a +1 to hit with all ranged attacks.
  • Berserker: This class is good at delivering devastating blows in HTH. They receive a +1 to all damage rolls in HTH.
  • Sergeant: This class represents natural born leaders. Other classes may have a maximum of 3 hirelings. Sergeants may have up to 6. These hirelings have a +1 to their morale. Sergeants may also forfeit an action to provide a floating +1 bonus to a fellow party member for that round (to hit HTH, to hit ranged, damage or AC).
  • Shield Maiden/Tank: This class is good with armor, shields and defense. They receive a -1 bonus to their AC.
  • Weapon Master: This class is good with HTH weapons. They receive a +1 to hit with all HTH attacks.
  • Clerics, Elves and Magic Users do not receive any bonuses beyond their spell casting abilities.
  • Dwarves get a +1 HP for every HD.
  • Halflings get a +1 to all saving throws.

Now, personally, I like a little randomness in my character generation. This can be accomplished in any combination of the following:

  1. Roll a d10 to determine which class the character is.
  2. Roll a d6. On a 1-3 the class bonus remains at 1. On a 4-5 the bonus is 2. On a 6 the bonus is 3.
  3. In addition to the class bonus, roll on the following table:
1-2: +1 to hit with ranged attacks
3-4: +1 damage with HTH
5-6: -1 AC
7-8: +1 to hit with HTH
9-10: +1 HP per HD
11-12: +1 to all saving throws
13: -1 to hit with ranged attacks
14: -1 damage with HTH
15: +1 AC
16: -1 to hit with HTH
17: -1 HP per HD
18: -1 to all saving throws
19-20: Roll twice ignoring 19-20.

Archers, Berserkers, Sergeants, Shield Maidens/Tanks and Weapon Masters function as fighters. The other classes all function as otherwise written.

D&D without characteristics — makes me go hmmm...

Saturday, November 7, 2009

On Alignments and Psalm 8

Psalm 8

O Lord, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth! You have set your glory above the heavens.

Out of the mouths of babes and infants you have founded a bulwark because of your foes, to silence the enemy and the avenger.

When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?

Yet you have made them a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honor.

You have given them dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under their feet, all sheep and oxen, and also the beasts of the field, the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea, whatever passes along the paths of the seas.

O Lord, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth!

I've been meditating upon this, the first Psalm of praise within the Psaltery. It asks an important question: who is man that God should give us the role of royal regent within His creation? That God made all of humanity in His image and likeness — His representation within creation — and His priests — His representatives within creation — is an awesome reality. When doing a little research I ran across this little piece of analysis by James Luther Mays:

Human dominion extends over domestic and wild animals, birds and fish. The list is meant to include all living creatures. This designation of the sphere of human dominion reflects the struggles of early humans to domesticate and control, to live with and by the use of the wilderness of the world. It represents the entire human undertaking to do what the other animals cannot and do not do, order and shape what is already there into habitat. Animals are dependent on a habitat; humans depend on their capacity to craft one. The power and responsibility that belong to that capacity are interpreted by the psalm as a regency given to humankind in the world. The psalm invites us to see all the civilizing work of the human species as honor and glory conferred on it by God and, therefore, as cause and content for praise of God.

What struck was the last line: The psalm invites us to see all the civilizing work of the human species as honor and glory conferred on it by God and, therefore, as cause and content for praise of God. This puts an interesting spin on alignment. It reinforces the notion that within the three alignment (Law/Neutral/Chaos) system, Law equals civilization and Chaos equals the wilderness. But more than that, civilization is defined as the human activity that specifically gives rise to the praise of the One God.

This reinforces my own adherence to the three alignment system and further clarifies my own discomfort with the nine alignment system introduced in 1e. The pseudo-Christian Cleric of OD&D actually makes sense within context of Law/Neutral/Chaos. There is enough flexibility within three alignment system to accommodate a wide variety of world-views, especially a scriptural one. Once D&D moves away from this flexibility into the specific world-views of the nine alignment system, that freedom is severely hampered. The pseudo-Christian Cleric no longer fits as well and the system begins to demand a pagan/polytheistic world-view. This demand found its full expression in 2ed and thereafter, which marks the beginning of my own alienation from the game.

Once again, I find the freedom found in OD&D and her clones allows me to play the game we love in a way that I can live up to the call of Psalm 8.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

City States

Although I started playing D&D in the late 70s and have gone through several modules set in Greyhawk, I have never taken part in a campaign which took place within that iconic setting. For whatever reason, the vast majority of the people I have played with over the years have always used home brew settings and do-it-yourself dungeons. I have had a passing interest in Greyhawk, due to its place in the history of our hobby, but never felt comfortable with it.

This week I cracked open a book that explores the economic and political history of towns and cities in Germany during the Middle Ages. What struck me was that as a political entity, these towns and cities became independent city-states due to several factors. Trade allowed the Burghers to become wealthy. In order to ensure stability and continued trade, these Burghers allied with each other to create councils which became the political force behind these city states. They invested in armies, in defenses and in superior technology (canons, guns, etc.). The remarkable part of this story is who they were protecting themselves against: the nobility. There is a story of one city state who was besieged by several princes who banded together to take it over. They failed. The technology and the professionalism of the city state troops proved to be too much. In addition, city states endeavored to acquire territory — a defensive buffer zone between them and the nobility.

For me, this sheds a new light upon the city state as a D&D setting, of which Greyhawk is the archetype. The city is governed by a council of various families and guilds with a variety of interests. Some of them conflict, but all are united in the desire to protect the city (and thus their own interests). In addition, the city invests in "technology" — it houses a school of magic, is tolerant of magical research, and gives wizards a seat on the council. In turn, this collection of magic-users can be called upon in times of trouble. As a result, there will also be a heavy concentration of magical items within the walls of the city.

There is a very competent city militia; however, there will also be a requisite number of adventurers hired on by various members of the council to take on tasks that ensure the survival of the city. One of these tasks is the acquisition of territory — clearing areas of monsters and the building of strongholds in order to maintain this territory.

These efforts will be in opposition to various "princes," whether they are orc tribes, the armies of mad kings, demon led hordes of barbarians, evil monks, or your run-of-the-mill power hungry nobility.

Although this framework does not lend itself as easily to a sandbox kind of game as does the proverbial keep in the borderlands, it does allow for a more political and patron driven campaign.

Having never had the whole Greyhawk experience, I am curious as to how closely this model fits with what was actually played. I know that if I ever were to go about making my own version of Greyhawk, this is the direction I would go. I am, however, more inclined to just apply this model to a campaign entirely of my own design.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Lost Colonies Session 6

This was a fascinating session on several levels. The players decided to explore a rumor about missing trade caravans that they hadn't looked into yet, and then got sidetracked by a random encounter. The entire session revolved around finding a lair and rooting it out in order to find treasure. This reveals two things: the players have figured out that treasure is the surest way to gain experience and that I had better have a few lairs up my sleeves, because this party is going to be interested in finding them.

The creatures that the party encountered were "cleaning crew" monsters — predators that were capable of killing a fresh meal, but who primarily feed on a trash. Thus, their lair was much more likely to be associated with creatures who produced trash. The players were in the vicinity of the Giant Insect Jungle, as it has come to be called, and the only real trash producers would be a tribe of chaotic humans that graft giant insect parts to their bodies. Thus the lair the party found was a series of caves occupied by this tribe.

Then something interesting happened. The party talked. They've figured out that combat is deadly and that not every situation needs to be beaten over the head with a spiked club. The party sought a safe place to camp and some healing for one of the party members who seemed to be getting ill from his wounds from the trash eaters. The negotiation did not go well; however, through a series of bold moves by the party and several bad morale checks, the party bullied its way through the underground lair. With minimal combat, they managed to walk off with much of the tribe's treasure.

Amid this wonderful bluff by the party, two things of note happened. A young teenaged boy named Grak was rescued from having his first graft replace a hand. Through a combination of kind acts of healing and bravado, the boy was convinced to help the party. He first showed them the tribe's altar where various body parts to be replaced with giant insect grafts were sacrificed in a pool of acid to an image of a Cthuloid monstrosity. In an act of unexpected religious fervor, the party sought to purify the area.

As an aside, I make clerics roll for their bonus spells. They keep receiving that spell as their bonus until it is used. This forces clerics to be creative and it also allows them the opportunity to use some of their utility spells that would otherwise be ignored in favor of Cure Light Wounds. As a result, the new cleric of the party, Deacon Swibish from Redwraith, had Purify Food and Water which he cast upon the pool. Then Tykris the Fighter threw his holy symbol into the pool. The result was rather dramatic. Instead of watching the symbol dissolve in acid, a great crack formed in the pool and through the carving, draining all the contents of the pool and leaving the holy symbol untouched. This awed Grak, who wanted to become a follower of the party's God. They happily took Grak back to Headwater and gave him into the care of Fr. Valinor, the local priest. They are also interested in finding a way in which to help heal or replace the hand Grak lost in preparation for the graft he was to get before he was rescued.

Due to life, a couple of players in the campaign have become itinerant members of the party. They come occasionally when life allows. This session saw life allow both of them to play. At the end of the evening, knowing that they wouldn't be back for a number of sessions, they each wanted to find something for their characters to do until the next time they were able to play. Akmed the Dwarf ended up traveling north to a dwarven colony to learn how to work with bronze. Tykris ended up wanting to spend time with Fr. Valinor at the church, learning in what capacities he could help. The expectation from both players is that this time of training, as it were, will result in some kind of skill or game-play reward. I am inclined to give it to them, because they are invested enough in their characters to think of it, and because it will give them an incentive to come back to the campaign when they are able.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Evil Part 2: Humanity & Religion

In response to my post on Evil, Rob Conley made this comment about his own creative process for putting together his campaign:

My whole system came about because I wanted true evil, rejection of creation, but I wanted shades of gray in religion. In my reading I know that "evil" religion don't exist in reality.

This discussion deserves an entire post, because Rob's comment raises a couple of very important questions: Where does evil come from? Can a religion be evil? And a not so important question: How is it possible to create a cosmology for a RPG world that has shades of gray with resorting to some kind of paganism/polytheism?

Let me start with the source of evil:

And the Lord God commanded the man, "You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die." — Genesis 2:16-17

When looking at these verses, we must remember the definition of good and evil — God is good; evil is the absence of good/God. Thus, by eating of the fruit, Adam and Eve reject God because to know evil is to know a world without God. They tried to become like God without God.

Creation was brought forth by God from nothing:

I beseech thee, my son, look upon the heaven and the earth, and all that is therein, and consider that God made them of things that were not; and so was mankind made likewise — 2 Macabees 7:28

Thus, when Adam and Eve chose to turn away from God and know a world without God, they chose nothingness — their choice introduced death into creation. As priests and caretakers of God's creation, they dragged all of creation with them towards the nothingness that everything came from. Sans God, it is to nothing that we shall all return. The word adam means humanity. So, the source of sin and evil in the world is us.

The tragic flaw of the pagan world-view is that it abdicates human responsibility for virtually every aspect of life. War doesn't exist because Ares invented it. War is our creation. We are responsible for it. We are the source of evil through our separation from God.

Insofar as a religion encourages or requires behavior that separates humanity from God, it can be evil (any way you slice it, human sacrifice isn't good). However, every religion can have shades of truth — it can correctly understand an aspect of God, but fail to accept the fullness of who God is. The problem is, there are very real consequences that come with these failures.

In order to get shades of grey into the religion of an RPG world, one really doesn't have to look much further than a dogmatic history of Christianity. For purposes of illustration and inspiration, let me walk through some heresies from people who understood themselves to be Christian, and the consequences of their belief:

  • Gnosticism: There are several variations on a theme, but Gnosticism basically boils down to a rejection of matter as the creation of an evil demi-urge (i.e. the OT God). Salvation comes through the knowledge of the true God, which is the light/soul trapped inside a fleshly prison. As a consequence, things like murder, hedonism, extreme asceticism, and abuse are all acceptable because all matter and flesh are evil. What we do with it has no bearing on our salvation; only knowledge does. In terms of D&D, Gnosticism is nicely expressed in the explanation of Chaotic Neutral offered by the 1st ed DM's Guide.
  • Arianism: Arius and his adherents insisted that Christ was a creature — he was part of creation and did not share in the Father's essence. This reduces Christian eschatology (the experience of the Kingdom of Heaven) and ontology (the nature of being) to a moral/ethical system (and one that is impossible to live up to). With no eschatological or ontological justification, this moral/ethical code is doomed to fail, since everyone sins. As such, the only way to justify and enforce this moral/ethical code is through coercion.
  • Nestorianism: Nestorius and his ilk held that the human and divine natures of Christ were separate persons conjoined in the man Jesus of Nazareth. Such a reality justifies a compartmentalization of human activity. Our religious lives can be separate from our daily lives. Thus, a man can justify being a pious and loving husband and father at home at the same time he is a torturer and killer at work without any conflict between these two aspects of his life.
  • Monophysitism: This heresy held that the human nature of Jesus was absorbed into the divine nature of Christ, leaving Him with one nature. Overemphasizing the divine nature of Christ devalues human nature, and thus humanity. When humanity gets devalued, it becomes easy to justify things like slavery, racism, genocide, etc. because the definition of what it means to be human can be narrowed to fit whatever category you need. Thus, Group A is human and Group B is not because they don't have what Group A does. Enslaving, discriminating against, and even killing Group B is justifiable because they are less than human.

Thus, without ever having to resort to a pagan cosmology, there are plenty of ways we humans have figured out to impose shades of grey onto Christianity by rejecting certain aspects of God.

I have been accused by players of being the most frightening Referee they've ever played with. The reason being that I apply my understanding of evil to my worlds. I insist on a clear dichotomy between Law and Chaos, which lends itself very well to the illusion that everything is black and white. In reality, evil corrupts everything and the most terrifying monsters in D&D are human. Yes, my monsters are physical manifestations of sin, but the true evil in my worlds originates with people, not monsters. As such, dealing with the folks back home can sometimes be more dangerous than delving in a dungeon. Survival rests upon my players' ability to recognize sin for what it is. Monsters, as personifications of sin, help us to do exactly that.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009


Let love be genuine; abhor what is evil, hold fast to what is good — Romans 12:9

The other day, James reflected on Bram Stoker's Dracula. He observed:

I can't help but feel disappointment at the way the archetype of the vampire has been so watered-down and indeed neutered of the power it packed in Stoker's day. I think there's still a lot of punch left in vampires but most of that punch comes from contemplating their status as thralls of Hell (whether literally or metaphorically) rather than as forever-young demigods.

In the discussion that followed, I made this particular comment:

Rather than a symbol of our own alienation, our recent love affair with vampires, serial killers and even zombies is a symptom of our own inability to distinguish good from evil.

Based on the comments that followed, I think it useful to actually look at what the word evil means, especially from a scriptural point of view.

There are a couple of ways to go about defining evil. The first is to look at the words in Scripture that mean "evil." In Greek they are poniros and kakos. Poniros derives from the Greek word for "pain" and has been used as a title for the devil — "the Evil One." In fact, this is the word used in the last line of the Lord's Prayer and can be and has been translated as both "evil" and "the Evil One." Kakos simply means "bad" and is less significant to the Scriptural understanding of evil than the words adikia (wrong-doing, injustice) and amartia (sin).

Note that both adikia and amartia have the prefix of "a," indicating an absence of something — adikia meaning an absence of righteousness or justice and amartia meaning missing the mark. This suggests that an apophatic approach — looking at what evil is not — might actually be more useful than looking at poniros and kakos themselves.

  • Good and upright is the Lord — Psalm 25:8
  • O taste and see tat the Lord is good — Psalm 34:8
  • Give thanks to Him; praise His name; for the Lord is good; His mercy is everlasting — Psalm 100:4-5
  • Give thanks to the Lord, for He is good, For his mercy endures forever — Psalm 106:1; 107:1; 118:1, 29; 136:1
  • Praise the Lord, for the Lord is good — 135:3

I quote all these statements in context of the name of God revealed to Moses from the burning bush (Exodus 3:14). In English, the name of God is often rendered I AM. In Greek it is the One Who Is. In other words, the very name of God is a sentence begging for a predicate. Throughout Scripture, the titles of God are those predicates: Truth, Righteousness, Longsuffering, Love, Life, Good, etc.

Thus, God is Good. As such,

Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and comes down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow of turning. Of His own will He brought us forth by the word of truth — James 1:17-18

All that is good in the world comes from God because God is Good.

Evil, then, when understood apophatically as an absence of good, is actually the absence of God. Sin is that which separates us from God — we miss the mark, who is God. Further, God made us in His image and likeness. When we sin against another human being, it is a failure to see and acknowledge the image and likeness of God within that other person. Murder, for example, is the attempt to eradicate the image and likeness.

Our secular society has done its best to remove God from all aspects of life. In the absence of all that is good — God — how can we expect to be able to determine what is good or evil? Yet, human beings are wired for God and we yearn for Him and for His eternity. Without Him, this yearning produces watered-down bloodsucking eternally young demi-gods that we fail to see as monsters. For another take on this, see Fr. Barron's commentrary on vampires.

In terms of role playing, this is why I prefer understanding monsters as physical manifestations of sin and the dungeon as part of the mythical underworld. Metaphorically, it mirrors the monastic's struggle against demons in the wilderness. XP for gold spent represents characters improving themselves for their next battle against demons and sins. Conquering land in the wilderness to build a stronghold represents the process of sanctifying part of the fallen world, of winning it back from the devil and his angels. Failure to recognize a monster as a monster becomes a failure to recognize sin. A failure to recognize sin is a failure to recognize not only how far off the mark we are, but a failure to recognize the image and likeness of God within ourselves.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Children of the Watchers

Recently, while doing some research, I ran across a reference to the "Children of the Watchers." It is a phrase that pops up in some of the Apocrypha found in the Dead Sea Scrolls. The origin of the phrase lies in the word "Nephilim" in Genesis and and the word "Watcher" in Daniel.

The Nephilim were on the earth in those days — and also afterward — when the sons of God went in to the daughters of humans, who bore children to them. These were the heroes that were of old, warriors of renown. — Genesis 6:4

This is a difficult passage to translate and to understand. Are the Nephilim the children of the sons of God — angels — and women, or are they something else altogether? In context, the author is giving a litany of examples of how sinful creation has become prior to God's decision to tell Noah that He's going to flood the earth. To boot, Nephilim is not easily translated (as it is simply transliterated in the English); however, we do get a glimpse of what it might mean from the Jews of Alexandria some 300 years before Christ. The translation of the OT into Greek that they produced (called the Septuagint or LXX) translates the word Nephilim as "giants." We see a reference to giants again in the Wisdom of Solomon:

For even in the beginning, when arrogant giants were perishing, the hope of the world took refuge on a raft, and guided by your hand left to the world the seed of a new generation. — Wisdom of Solomon 14:6

Thus, this author has interpreted Genesis 6:4 to indicate that the Nephilim were monsters. In Baruch, we see giants again:

O Israel, how great is the house of God, how vast the territory that he possesses! It is great and has no bounds; it is high and immeasurable. The giants were born there, who were famous of old, great in stature, expert in war. — Baruch 3:24-26

This time the author understands giants to be the heroes of old, born of the sons of God and women.

Take all three together, and the Nephilim of Genesis 6:4 are the monstrous offspring of some angels and women.

The term "Watcher" is used in the OT exclusively in Daniel:

The sentence is rendered by decree of the watchers, the decision is given by order of the holy ones, in order that all who live may know that the Most High is sovereign over the kingdom of mortals; he gives it to whom he will and sets over it the lowliest of human beings.' — Daniel 4:17

This comes from a dream of Nebuchadnezzer that Daniel is asked to interpret. The "watchers" are an order of angels. From this particular passage, it seems that their task was to judge sin. The term "watcher" also is found in such Apocryphal works as the Book of Jubilees and the Book of Enoch. There seems to be an understanding that watchers are fallen angels. With the use of the term "Children of the Watchers" the Nephilim of Genesis 6:4 are interpreted to be the offspring of an order of fallen angels called the Watchers when they "went in to the daughters of humans."

This got my creative juices flowing, and evokes in me the image of some kind of secret society that acts as a group of depraved vigilantes meeting out their twisted version of justice through assassination. They are all descendants of Nephilim and get their name from their demonic progenitors. Since the Children of the Watchers are monsters, they can be any intelligent creature. Their ancestry and their vision of justice is what unites them. In addition to whatever powers and abilities they ordinarily have, Children of the Watchers gain all of the following abilities:

1) They surprise on a 1-4 and can only be surprised on a 1.
2) Any successful attack either from surprise or from the rear does an additional 1d6 damage for every 2HD the creature has.
3) They leave no tracks.

Regardless of their form, Children of the Watchers are all marked with the seal of their order:

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Another Monster and a New Stat Block

I always find it interesting how important actual play is to understanding a game, and how to judge its design, and how its presentation. For example, as much as I love 3.5 on paper, I don't enjoy playing it.

In this light, I have decided to change the stat block I use when creating monsters. In play, the guys that I sit at the table with like to explore the wilderness, hunt down lairs and loot them. As such, I have been highly dependent upon random encounters and have found the follow items from a monster stat block to be essential:

  • Number Appearing — This gives me a baseline for determining the number of creatures encountered (and how many to expect inside a lair).
  • % in Lair — this helps determine whether or not the party has stumbled upon the monsters in or out of their home.
  • Morale — since this comes into play so much, especially with larger encounters in the wilderness, I need this stat at my finger tips.
  • Hoard Class — When that lair is actually found, I need to know what kind of treasure is in it.
  • XP — If I know exactly how much XP each monster is worth, I can easily keep a running tally.

I have also found that the following items unnecessarily clutter up the stat block:

  • AAC — though I have a group of guys that discovered our hobby through 3.5, they have adjusted very smoothly to AC and using THAC0.
  • Challenge Level — Frankly, I've never used this. The players know quite well that I don't dumb down or weaken the monsters in places they have no business being. Characters have been killed for not running away when they should have. The game is about choices. When I present to them a monster, it is what it is. The characters are then free to try their luck and skill or to run away and then face the consequences of their choice.

Keeping these things in mind for my home-brew monsters, I present the Flacara:


[Those] Who said, "Let us inherit the holy place of God for ourselves."
O my God, turn them like a wheel,
Like straw before the face of the wind,
Like fire that burns through a thicket,
Like a flame that sets mountains on fire;
Thus You shall pursue them with Your storm,
And You shall trouble them in your wrath.

—Psalm 83:13-16

Number Appearing: 2d4
% in Lair: 25%
Alignment: Chaotic
Armor Class: 3
Move: 9
Hit Dice: 2+1
Attacks: 1 weapon (1d6+1) + Flame Damage (1d6)
Special: Flame Damage
Save: F3
Morale: 9
Hoard Class: XIV
XP: 59

These vile creatures are about the size and stature of a Dwarf. Their flesh is cracked, blackened, and emaciated. As though burning from within, flames burst through the cracks and orifices all over their bodies. A Flacara's face is a mask of pain, something they take delight in inflicting on others. Every round spent in melee with a Flacara, a character must make a save vs. breath or take 1d6 fire damage. When a Flacara is using metal weapons or is fighting unarmed, any successful hit will generate an additional 1d6 flame damage unless a save v. breath is successful. They are immune to fire and cold attacks will actually add hit points. Flacara value gems over all other treasure.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Druids as Monsters

In an interesting piece of news most likely to be ignored by much of the American media, His Eminence Bartholomew, Patriarch of Constantinople is arriving today in New Orleans to be the key note speaker at the Religion, Science and the Environment Symposium held there through October 25. Bartholomew is known as the Green Patriarch and has been a champion for environmentalism for many years. I bring this up, because his environmentalism is not born of a political point of view, but rather from solid Christian theology.

In the 8th and 9th centuries, the Eastern Church went through the trauma of Iconoclasm — which literally means the breaking of the icons. At issue was the place of icons — the depiction of Christ and His saints — in worship and in the Church. The Iconoclasts equated their use with idolatry. The Seventh Ecumencial Council convened in the year 787 at Nicea specifically to defend icons and their use from a theological point of view. This view eventually won the day and icons are used by Orthodox Christians in worship to this day; however, underlying the whole controversy was humanity's relationship with nature and the place of nature in the Kingdom of Heaven.

The Iconoclasts had a difficult time with the depiction of Christ and His saints because they saw the act of making an icon to be an insult — that to use mere matter to depict our Saviour and the Holy people of God was to denigrate them. This argument finally runs counter to and calls into question the Incarnation of Christ — God Himself took on our humanity (became "mere" matter) for our salvation. It also fails to understand our place in creation and our relationship to creation. During the Seventh Ecumenical Council, St. Leontios of Cyprus states:

Through heaven and earth and sea, through wood and stone, through all creation visible and invisible, I offer veneration to the Creator and Master and Maker of all things. For the creation does not venerate the Maker directly and by itself, but it is through me that the heavens declare the glory of God, through me the moon worships God, through me the stars glorify Him, through me the waters and showers of rain, the dews and all creation, venerate God and give Him glory.

This sacramental view of our relationship can be seen in 1Peter 2:9:

You are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people, that you may proclaim the praises of Him who called you out of the darkness into His marvelous light.

In other words, our stewardship of nature — and the proper orientation of environmentalism — is centered on God. Through us — our prayers, our sacramental life and our "reduction of our carbon footprint" — nature is lifted up to God and participates in the eternity of the Kingdom of Heaven. In a very real sense, the proper platform from which to understand environmentalism is Christianity.

Thus, from this perspective, I believe that the LBBs got it right when they listed the Druid as a monster. As a defender of nature, the Druid fails to unite humanity with nature. Instead, they choose nature over and against civilization. They have no qualms about murdering thousands if it means saving a fish.

In my own understanding of the Lawful/Neutral/Chaotic alignment rules, I like the illustration of the city being attacked by hoards of cthuloid monsters and their minions. If you are on the wall defending the city, you are Lawful. If you are trying to break down the gate, you are Chaotic. If you don't care either way, you are neutral. Using this illustration, Druids actually fall closer to Chaotic than they do Neutral. Civilization is the major threat to nature and must be opposed. In this sense, Rangers, as the class that learns the ways of the wilderness in order to protect civilization from the wilderness, are the natural foes of Druids, not their comrades in arms, as they are in later editions of D&D.

Ultimately, the Druid's defense of nature makes the same mistake the Iconoclasts did in reverse — nature and humanity are incompatible. The result is destructive — the Iconoclasts destroyed thousands of invaluable religious artifacts and killed those who defended them, and Druids are willing to murder and destroy in the name of nature. In contrast, the relationship of humanity to nature in Christian theology is creative. We are called to not only protect our environment, but to live with it and to transform it — lift it into the Kingdom of Heaven to the glory of God.

In contrast, Druids are frightening. In my own version of the Temple of Elemental Evil, Druids run the show. They are rightly called monsters, and in my own worlds and campaigns they remain so.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Lost Colonies Session 5

With the rescue of Fr. Taggert and the discovery of the mask and the albino tattooed raiders, the party sent correspondence to contacts in the city. Thus far, not much information has been garnered save for a rumor that there is an alchemist in Redwraith that might be able to help Hamlin regain his lost strength. As a result of this bit of information, the party headed north to that town, rumored to have an ongoing undead problem. The focus of our session, however, had little to do with Redwraith because a wandering monster encounter hijacked most of the session.

As the party trudged north, they spotted what looked like a dragon carrying a cow flying northwest. With unexpected bravado, they decided that they would follow it in hopes of finding the dragon's lair. What they found was a valley dotted with caves crawling with goblins all wearing dragon-themed heraldry.

The party set up a pair of ambushes to capture a prisoner to interrogate for information. They found out that the goblins had thrown in their lot with the dragon, who they saw as their champion and protector. They also found out in which cave the dragon laired.

They decided to try to disguise one of the party as a goblin to sneak into the valley and then use a potion of diminution to sneak into the dragon's lair to steal some treasure. This was all enthusiastically received until they realized that the only party member that could speak goblin was Vonz the elf, played by our youngest and least experienced player.

Knowing that this plan would likely result in Vonz's death, the rest of the party left it up to Vonz as to whether or not he would go. Embracing his doom, he agreed. The party then detailed an excellent plan, taking advantage of Vonz's abilities and his Charm Person spell. They even gave him the strange metallic potion they found last session in case he needed it for negotiation. In the hands of a more experienced player, I would have given the party a decent chance of getting away with some treasure. Unfortunately, once Vonz was on his own, the carefully laid out plan completely fell apart.

What resulted was a very entertaining evening at Vonz's expense — to the delight of everyone, even Vonz's player (though he did not quite appreciate it as much as the rest of us). In what ammounted to a comedy of errors, Vonz bumbled into the dragon's lair and proceeded to get eaten.

The party then abandoned their quarry, and continued toward Redwraith. On the way, they stumbled upon a small Dwarven colony that specialized in working bronze. When it became clear that the party was headed to Redwraith, they were not welcome.

Finally, the party arrived at Redwraith to find that its undead problem is a result of being ruled by a cadre of necromancers. The offered cure for Hamlin's lost strength was an alchemal creature called a Thanaty Worm — a symbiot that helps heal the host. The cost of this relationship, however, is that once the worm's host dies, the Thanaty Worm transforms the corpse into walking dead in service of Redwraith's necromancers. Hamlin was unwilling to pay this price and the session ended with a quick return to Headwater, but not before picking up another adventurer — Deacon Swibish of Redwraith, who, unlike Hamlin, was quite willing to take on a Thanaty Worm. We shall see how that plays out.