Saturday, November 27, 2010

Saintly Saturday: St. James the Great Martyr of Persia

This saint was a noble from the city of Bythlaba in Persia. He was the beloved friend of Isdiger I, King of Persia (399-420). Though the King was hostile to Christianity, out of his desire to spare his friend, he lured James with gifts and flattery. The King was successful and James renounced Christ; however, the year that Isdiger died and his son Bahram V (421-438) came to power the rumor that James had become apostate reached the ears of his Christian mother and wife. They wrote him a scathing letter, declaring that if James had chosen temporal glory over the love of Christ then they wanted nothing to do with him. James was stunned and was brought to his senses. Tears of repentance poured from his eyes and he once again attached himself to Christ.

Upon hearing this news, King Bahram (who also considered James a friend), following the successful actions of his father, tried to lure the saint with gifts and flowery words. St. James, however, was better armed for the fight and refused renounce his true King. Angered, Bahram condemned St. James to a brutal death.

The Orthodox Church gives the title "Great Martyr" to those that suffered particularly nasty or prolonged deaths. St. James certainly qualifies. His body was dismembered one joint at a time. He survived having both his arms and legs cut off in this manner. Finally, he was beheaded in the year 421.

I'd like to make three observations: two historical and one RPG related. First the historical:
  • This reminds me that until the rise of Islam, Christian Rome's biggest rival was the Zoroastrian Persian Empire.
  • Zoroastrianism is a monotheistic (though dualist) religion. I won't belabor the point, but, contrary to the synchretistic and PC impulses of modern man to insist that all religions (especially monotheistic ones) all want to go to the same place, Christianity, Islam and Zoroastrianism are radically different.
Now to the RPG stuff. The story of St. James reminds me that the concept of the Patron is often neglected (especially in fantasy RPGs). This is, in part, due to the nature of the source material where most characters in pulp fantasy were Grey Mouser and Fafhrd types who were tied to no one. When used correctly, however, Patrons can be exceptionally useful tools.

Most obviously, they are a source for adventures. They can give characters "missions" that, if not over used, can serve as "palette cleansers" for normal dungeon and wilderness exploration. Patrons can also give life to the world beyond the characters. By representing their own agenda, they imply agendas that run counter to their own goals. Without much effort, this can lend depth to an otherwise sketchy world. Finally, this background noise can become a major campaign theme/conflict should the Patron disappear/die/get replaced.

In my own campaigns, I try to take advantage of both magic users and clerics in order to insert Patrons into the game. Clerics are more natural for this — bishops make great Patrons. With magic users, they have to get their spells from somewhere. The story of St. James reminds me that there will probably be a major change in store for my players in the near future...

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Saintly Saturday: St. Cuthbert

As you may have noticed, my output on this blog has been seriously lagging of late. Not that I am finding myself any less enthusiastic about this hobby or things that go on in the OSR. The time that I have had available for my hobby in the last couple of months has been short and I have simply chosen to use it for actual play rather than musing. It has been rather startling to discover how time consuming musing can be, especially when one doesn't have something rather specific to muse about.

To this end I've been thinking — there are a number of blogs out there that have regular features that keep me coming back. A really good example is Grognardia. James has three regular types of posts: Open Friday, Retrospectives and Pulp Fantasy Library. It should be no surprise, then, that James has given me the inspiration for a type of regular post, which Blood of Prokopius has thus far lacked.

Petty Gods has garnered a lot of attention and enthusiasm. Though not exactly my cup of tea, even I ventured to submit something (a saint rather than a god). It occurred to me that hagiographies could be a wealth of information for campaigns, character ideas and adventure ideas. Since Orthodoxy commemorates the dead on Saturdays, it seemed appropriate for the one day a week that I could challenge myself to write. For those of you out there that doubt my premise, I wish to begin with a saint that has long been embraced by our hobby:

St. Cuthbert

Personally, I first encountered St. Cuthbert in B1: In Search of the Unknown, where he is mentioned in passing in the list of potential characters at the back with the cleric Tassit, the Servant of St. Cuthbert. The saint is also mentioned in Supplement 3: Eldritch Wizardry via the artifact the Mace of Cuthbert as well as in T1: The Village of Hommlet via the local church which is dedicated to him. I personally find it very interesting that T1 actually portrays a reasonable facsimile of a fantasy Christian setting. Hommlet is a mixture of those who follow the new religion (Christianity) and those who still cling to the old religion (nature-based paganism). Both are threatened by demon-worshipping members of the Temple of Elemental Evil. In fact, this is one of the reasons it is one of my favorite modules to this day.

To my knowledge, St. Cuthbert does not make the transition to being a "lesser god" until around 1983 with the publication of the World of Greyhawk 2nd Edition. He is described there as:
a stout, red-faced man, with a drooping white mustache and flowing white hair. He wears magicked plate mail. Atop his helmet is a crumpled hat, and a starburst of rubies set in platinum hangs on his chest...[He] hates evil but his major interest is in law and order and the dual work of conversion and prevention of back-sliding by "true believers."
In reality, St. Cuthbert was a 7th century hermit and a monastic who eventually became the bishop of Lindisfarne, also known as the Holy Island. When he died, his relics remained incorrupt and were the source of countless miracles. He is known as the Wonderworker of Britain.

The aspect of St. Cuthbert that I find most useful for a fantasy RPG campaign is the context within which he lived. Lindesfarne historically functioned in much the same way as the Keep on the Borderland.

Britain was conquered by Rome in AD 41. Christianity followed shortly thereafter — it was so well established, in fact, that there were British bishops at the First Ecumenical Council in AD 325. Rome abandoned its British colonies around AD 410. Shortly thereafter, pagan Goths invaded and conquered much of the island. Lindesfarne was the beachhead of the second wave of Christianity, trying to reclaim lost territory for civilization (where civilization is understood as Christian Rome and its successors).

In other words, T1 need not be tied to Greyhawk, but could very well take place in a fantasy version of 8th century Britain.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Lost Colonies Sessions 26 & 27

These two sessions have been some of the most gratifying I have had as a Referee in a very long time. The campaign seems to have turned a corner — I feel like the world that my players and I have been playing with has come alive and into focus in a way that it hasn't before. And all of this because of a few rolls on some random tables (a wilderness encounter and available scrolls and potions).

After spending several days in Trisagia shopping and spending money on a variety of items that are unavailable in Headwaters and making arrangements with a traveling carnival to come and give the citizens of Headwaters a number of hard earned days of fun, the party headed back north to their home base. This journey requires crossing the very wide and deep Dark River. This was never much of an issue, because a sturdy stone bridge that has spanned the waterway since the first days of the colonies has always been part of the journey. However, this time, the party found the bridge destroyed by several large boulders. In the place of the bridge there now was a ferryman and his boat demanding a toll.

The characters also noticed that flying patrol above the bridge were some mounted giant eagles and that there was an unnatural cloud formation some distance away. Hamlen tried to insist that the ferryman was trespassing on his road, but found that conversation with it was limited to whether or not he was going to pay the toll. A quick Detect Evil spell suggested that the thing wasn't human. Reluctantly, the party chose to pay the toll rather than endangering the carnival caravan they had in tow.

Once well past the river, Hamlen personally payed the carnival to guarantee that they would stay an extra week (so that he could enjoy the festivities himself). The party then set off to rid "Hamlen's Road" of this new menace.

The subsequent battle was quite harrowing because it was the first time that party was subject to an organized mass charge by an opponent. Had it not been for Kavella (the NPC magic user) and her Wand of Fear, the battle might have gone much worse. The riders (as well as the ferryman) ended up being undead, similar to those employed by the Yellow Lady. This added a sense of urgency to find the source of these creatures.

Using their spyglass, they determined that the unnatural cloud formation was actually some kind of castle in the sky. Using one of their newly purchased potions, they flew up to the castle to investigate. What they found was the lair of a cloud giant in disrepair and neglect. Creatively using a variety of magic items, scrolls and spells they managed to figure out that the resident cloud giant had been possessed. After freeing him and his children, the party set off to hunt down the evil magic user responsible.

The battle itself was brief. Hamlen had in his possession an Arrow of Magic-User Slaying which he managed to hit the evil magic user with. She proceeded to explode, leaving nothing behind but her golden mask. This moment was the only downer of these two sessions for me — I felt guilty for not killing off Hamlen, believe it or not, and thus cheapening the victory. The initiative resulted in simultaneous actions and the magic-user had time to get off one last spell. I knew that she could fry Hamlen with a Lightning Bolt and most probably end his days (he was sitting with 15hp at that point in time); however, the party was spread out over two rooms (a nasty magical trap forced half the party to hold back, lest the trap kill them) and she couldn't target more than one character. Had she known she was going to die, she would have done so, but she didn't. Thus, her last gasp was merely a Web spell.

The players then proceeded to befriend the cloud giant who rewarded them with items from his treasury. He also gave them a ride back to Headwaters and the characters became the highlight of the carnival with a grand entrance on the back of giant eagles from a floating castle. The sessions ended on this high note.

The reason I was so gratified by these two sessions was for a number of reasons. The random cloud giant encounter became a catalyst for several seeds that I have randomly thrown about to come to fruition — a fruition that would not have happened without the party making something more out of what I had planted.

For example:
  • "Hamlen's Road": Hamlen's player has taken interest in making sure the trade route between Headeaters and Trisagia remain open and safe. He has lead to party to patrol the road on several occasions and has cleared to road of dangers more than once. This is the first time, however, that he has claimed this territory as his own. The end-game of D&D is coming into focus.
  • Hornet: What began as a simple +1 short sword has developed into an entire backstory that Ahkmed's player is now eager to clarify. In order to make the item unique, I gave it a bit of a curse — save vs. spells in order to refrain from killing goblins that happen to be within sight. Then Ahkmed "gave himself over to the sword" and suddenly the thing had a personality. Then Ahkmed failed to rid himself of the sword (a series of failed saving throws while in Trisagia), and the sword, sensing that if it didn't act, it would end up being merely a +1 sword again acted. Ahkmed has had visions of an elfin maid ("Hornet" in Elfish) who has offered to him help in his various quests. He now has limited access to elvish abilities and is done trying to get rid of the sword. We now have established that elvish swords somehow are imbued with the soul? spirit? essence? of an elf. More to come…
  • The Cloud Giant: His treasure trove had several elvish items (randomly determined), thus indicating some type of relationship with the elves, who "come from the south."
  • Golden Masks: After encountering a number of evil magic users wearing golden masks, the party is now determined to find out exactly who they are. One of the items they found hidden among the magic users stash was a book written in an ancient tongue, with more than a passing similarity to the tattoos that cover the magic user's bodies. Getting the thing translated is high on their priority list.
  • Fame and Fortune: With the grand entrance at the carnival, the party has solidified their status among the peoples of Headwaters. NPCs that have attached themselves to the party have been treated extraordinarily well (if they survive) and this has established the reason for the attraction of followers during the end game. Headwaters is becoming famous, a place to do trade and is prospering because of the direct action of the party.
  • Dwarven Reproduction: The party is still interested in "making a dwarf." Although inspired by James Maliszewski's Dwarves, Ahkmed's player has taken the concept in his own unique direction (Dwarves are neuters, for example). Again, more to come...
When I started this campaign, all I really had was a couple of maps and a sketchy idea as to what the world was like. The interactive creativity of our group has produced something I never would have come up with on my own — and certainly nothing this satisfying.