Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Adventuring with Antony the Great

Thus tightening his hold upon himself, Antony departed to the tombs, which happened to be at a distance from the village; and having bid one of his acquaintances to bring him bread at intervals of many days, he entered one of the tombs, and the other having shut the door on him, he remained within alone. And when the enemy could not endure it . . . coming one night with a multitude of demons, he so cut him with stripes that he lay on the ground speechless from the excessive pain. For he affirmed that the torture had been so excessive that no blows inflicted by man could ever have caused him such torment . . . The next day his acquaintance came bringing him the loaves. And having opened the door and seeing him lying on the ground as though dead, he lifted him up and carried him to the church in the village, and laid him upon the ground. And many of his kinsfolk and the villagers sat around Antony as round a corpse. But about midnight he came to himself and arose, and when be saw them all asleep and his comrade alone watching, he motioned with his head for him to approach, and asked him to carry him again to the tombs without waking anybody.

Whenever I see this passage, I feel like I am reading a quote from some pulp story written at the beginning of the 20th century. Its descent into the tombs that lie outside a village on the edge of the wilderness and its depiction of combat against demons never fails to inspires me. It makes the inner role-player in me want to take out my OD&D books, roll up a character, hire some henchmen and go exploring underground in search of the unknown.

I am not the only one that the story of Antony as inspired. In fact, it inspired an entire generation. However, that generation lived 1700 years ago and included the likes of St. Augustine of Hippo. This account of delving inside a tomb in order to take on demons in mortal combat is the Life of St. Antony by St. Athanasius the Great. It was read all over the Christian world and was translated from its original Greek into several languages, including the Latin that Augustine read. It sparked an explosion of monastic activity in the 4th century that is still with us today. Interestingly, the work is timeless and I've seen it inspire those of the 21st century just as much as it did those in the 4th.

I wanted to share this excerpt with you to demonstrate how easily the idea of the monk going into the wilderness to combat demons translates to D&D. Anthony is engaged in an activity that many dungeon delving D&D parties have done over the years. It is why I choose the monastic in the desert as a metaphor for a D&D campaign. It is a classic struggle between the forces of Chaos and the forces of Law. It also demonstrates that the sandbox campaign can work beautifully in the context of a Christian or monotheistic backdrop.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

The Sting of Death

Recently, I was flipping through Moldvay's Basic D&D and was stunned at how many creatures were listed in the monster section that, by today's standards, are way beyond the ability of the 1st-3rd level scope of the book. In fact, the average hit dice of monsters listed is 3+1. Therefore, there is an underlying assumption that low level characters are going to be outclassed and over their heads. Thus, death will occur unless the players (not characters) figure out a way to survive long enough to advance a few levels. In other words, your character's status as a hero is earned, not assumed, and marked by your ability as a player, not something inherent to the character through the game system.

Personally, I wouldn't have it any other way. What value is getting a character to higher levels when every encounter is tailored toward your character's abilities and his survival is assumed? Over the years I've played in a lot of games and I've seen and experienced a lot of character death. Just surviving was thrilling, especially when it came to encounters that our characters had no business being in. It is those encounters I remember most fondly. For example:

In an outdoor campaign, where the party represented a scout troop of a mercenary army on the front line of enemy occupied territory, our party would constantly be confronted with monsters far beyond our ability to fight. However, the goal was not to kick butt and take names. The goal was to survive long enough to get the information back to HQ. Every now and then, however, we had to fight. The worst of these was when the party was third or fourth level and not one of us had a magic weapon. A young maiden was being sacrificed and one of the primary participants was a demon that could not be damaged by normal weapons. We quickly huddled, came up with a plan, executed said plan and got away with the girl. Because death was a real part of the game, all of us knew that when we got away with the girl, we really got away — it was our skill as players that succeeded and not the benevolence of a kind GM.

In D&D, death gives value because it makes everything else a victory. Yet, every attempt to fix the problems of 3.5 that I have come across lists 1st level character vulnerability as an issue. This trend began with the Dark Sun setting, where beginning characters were bumped up to 3rd level because the world was "just too dangerous."

Do we fear death so much? In my lifetime, I have seen our culture's focus on youth become an obsession. The retirement home industry is on the upswing as the baby boomers age and we yearn to segregate them from the rest of society so that we aren't continually reminded of our own mortality.

In contrast, Christians get to quote St. Paul from 1 Corinthians 15:55, "Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?" Death has been trampled down by Christ on the cross. We do not fear death. Our saints are celebrated on the day they die. Death is transformative, for both those who die and those who remain. Death is an adventure.

In a strange way, older versions of D&D express this attitude toward death — they are comfortable with death. We remember the ways our characters die — both glorious and embarrassing. Adventures can spring up out of character death and entire campaigns can take on new scopes. I remember entire adventures taking place as we tried to get the materials necessary to resurrect or reincarnate fallen characters. I remember a Half-Elf that got reincarnated as a Hobgoblin — a wonderful opportunity for role-playing and soul searching.

Death has power only if you give it power.