Saturday, December 31, 2011

Saintly Saturday: The Saturday before Epiphany

Today is the Saturday before Epiphany, which in Orthodox Christian practice has its own assigned hymns, readings and prayers in anticipation of the celebration of Christ’s baptism. In some ways, Epiphany is actually a bigger feast in Orthodox Christianity than is Christmas (which originated in the West). In the East, the Nativity was commemorated as part of the feast of Epiphany and wasn’t celebrated as a separate feast until the end of the 4th century in most places, and not until the 6th century in others.

The reason for this import can be seen in another term Orthodox Christianity uses for the feast — Theophany. The word epiphany means revelation. The word theophany means a revelation about God. The revelation implied by the term is articulated in the Apolytikia (a type of hymn for a feast):
When You were baptized in the Jordan, O Lord, the worship of the Trinity was made manifest.
The baptism of Christ is the first time in Scripture where God explicitly reveals Himself to be Trinity — the voice of the Father, the Son in the Jordan being baptized and the Holy Spirit descending as a dove.

I am intrigued how these two words might apply to RPGs.

Epiphany, of course, is easier to apply since any kind of revelation is applicable. Revealing the true identity of an NPC nemesis, a continuing backstory of a dungeon or any other mystery of a campaign world would be fitting. For my own purposes and interests, this is particularly useful in designing and running megadungeons. One thing that keeps bringing players back is a continuous trickle of information about the history and use of the dungeon.

Personally, I try to make sure this backstory has multiple levels. I prefer to use three: 1) original builders/occupants, 2) those that either conquered the original occupants or took over after they disappeared, and 3) those that currently occupy the dungeon. I usually seed this information not just throughout the dungeon itself, but throughout the campaign world. Indeed, my player’s recent excursion across dimensions had a major reveal about the megadungeon (of course, it is still to be determined as to whether or not the players put all the pieces together…)

Theophany is a more difficult proposition, but is really the one I am more interested in. Since the advent of Gods, Demi-Gods & Heroes in 1978, divine beings have been at the very least peripherally part of the game. The question is how much and in what form? When I first encountered Deities & Demigods, my friends and I merely saw it as an interesting extension of the Monster Manual and set about seeing which entry would be the easiest/most entertaining to take on in combat. Indeed, the first (brief) campaign I ever ran using Deities & Demigods had as its goal a final confrontation with our choice (one of the babylonian/sumerian entries if I remember right).

As offensive or entertaining such an encounter might be, I would argue it would not be a theophany — given the way we used Deities & Demigods it was merely another (albeit really powerful) monster encounter (a use, by the way, that as a Christian I am very comfortable with).

Though I make liberal use of angels and saints in my own games, I am not really sure that I have made use of any kind of theophany — I really haven’t revealed anything about God or God Himself. Of course, I run a campaign with a Christian analog where much of the nature of God is already implied and the players (being at least familiar with Christianity) understand the basic assumptions. If I were ever to run a campaign based on my meditations on prophets as clerics, theophanies might play a larger role in the campaign. It might also be interesting to see how theophanies would play out in a far distant future campaign where Christianity only survives in tiny remnants.

So, I am curious: How often to you use theophanies in your campaigns?

Friday, December 30, 2011

Ripping Apart Time and Space

One of the things that I have been doing to entertain myself this past month is watching the BBC series Primeval. Though there are several moments over the course of the series that make it very difficult to suspend my disbelief, I very much enjoy the show because it has such a fascinating set-up.

Particularly interesting is its implicit admission that Darwinism cannot explain why the world was what it was and became what it is. Despite an overwhelming attempt by the popular culture (and scientists dependent upon secular and government money), Darwin’s mechanism for explaining evolution doesn’t work. As the show points out, there are things in the world and in the fossil record that just cannot be explained by our standard, assumed understanding of evolution.

However, the show does not take any kind of religious tack (it is the BBC, after all). Rather, they come up with an ingenious way of explaining how evolution does funny things. In essence, there are several holes in time and space that flash in and out of existence. Called (in a very Star Trek-esque manner) anomalies, they allow for creatures from very different epochs to cross over into different time periods — thus having drastic affects upon the evolutionary order.

One of the things that challenges the suspension of disbelief is that all of these anomalies seem to be centered around Britain, and that the government is perfectly capable of keeping it quiet that there are incursions by prehistoric monsters into our time on a fairly regular basis.

This got me thinking: why Britain? Why not the U.S. or South Africa or India? Given that Britain is the location of Stone Henge (and all of the weirdness associated with it), what if the anomalies were a long-term consequence of using arcane magic? Obviously, I am now fully going into FRPG inspiration mode, (because this blog is primarily about RPGs). Here is also where I get to sneak in some Christian dogma.

God created the world from nothing. When humanity knew evil (the absence of God), we knew a world of disease, decay and death — these are all symptoms of creation returning to the nothing from which it came. In context of a fantasy world where arcane magic exists and is practiced, this decay could take on a very interesting form. The use of arcane magic (which is, in essence an embrace of Adam’s Fall because most magic users attempt to be God sans God) could tear tiny holes in space and time. Over the long term, this results in anomalies — a symptom of space and time collapsing in on themselves as they return to nothing.

One of the more interesting ideas from the series is that most, if not all, mythological beasts have their origin as creatures from a distant past or future making an incursion into a different time. Thus, dragons might be dinosaurs. A dire boar might be an entelodont. A Lycanthrope or a vampire might be a wolf or a bat from some far distant future where these creatures have evolved some kind of intelligence (in fact, one of the recurring creatures in Primeval is a super-evolved bat).

There are three fundamental reasons why I am so intrigued by this concept:

Firstly, having portals opening up intermittently to other times can justify just about any weird creature you can think of — just call it a creature from the distant past or future. It also explains why dinosaurs of all different epochs could be roaming around a fantasy world.

Secondly, it allows just enough weirdness into a campaign world without going gonzo — how cool would it be to have a party of PCs jump through a portal into the distant past or future? The possibilities are endless.

Finally, and to my mind most importantly, it plays into the post-apocalyptic reality that is D&D — especially in a Homlesian kind of way. The ancient civilization hinted at in the Holmes edition of Basic D&D and how it came crashing down now come into sharp focus — all that powerful arcane magic tore enough holes in time and space that some serious nastiness crawled through to bring the civilization crashing to a halt. In addition, it suggests the very interesting possibility that divine magic (which develops later in the suggested D&D landscape of Holmes) heals these tears in time and space.

For my own purposes, it  also helps explain why the concept of time is so non-linear within the confines of the Chateau des Faussesflammes...

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Meditating on Random Encounter Tables

Before I go any farther, let me apologize for the dearth of posts around here lately. Though I should know better, lenten seasons (as in the 40 days prior to Christmas) and their immediate aftermath always demand more of my time than I ever expect. In addition, most of the time I have recently spent on gaming has been of the order of getting small details done for a couple projects that I have left fallow for awhile. Thus, I haven’t had a whole lot of time to post, and what I could be posting about hasn’t been all that exciting.

And here comes the However: I have been slogging through making Random Wilderness Encounter Tables for my version of Averoigne. Due to the fact that I like the mechanical feel of their structure, I have been using the same tables from S&W Complete as a model. And yet, one thing bothered me about them — dragons.

Depending on terrain type, there is about a 10% chance of having a random encounter with a dragon using the S&W Complete tables. Now, there are simple ways to radically reduce this chance — but this isn’t what bothered me. Rather, it was the very idea that I had to have a world where enough dragons were running around to justify a 10% chance of running into one.

This notion continued to grow as I found myself repeatedly placing things that the source material suggests like vampires, lamias and lycanthropes all over my encounter tables. Looking at my tables, I couldn’t help but think that my version of Averoigne must be crawling with hundreds of these nasty creatures in order to justify their presence in these tables.

As I doggedly moved forward and started to use these tables in order to come up with wilderness encounter areas, I realized something really interesting — while vampires, lamias and lycanthropes are all over my random tables, there is in actuality only one vampire, one lamia and a handful of lycanthropes (and no dragons) that currently live in Averoigne.

In other words, Random Encounter Tables do not represent what is, rather what might be and only if the PCs go exploring in the wilderness. Though dragons show up on my tables, they don’t exist until they do. Therefore, my world doesn’t have to be a world where dragons exist until they do.

This may seem to be an odd statement, but to my mind it is significant. A world crawling with vampires, lamias, lycanthropes and dragons would look and behave much differently than a world with one vampire, one lamia, a couple of lycanthropes and no dragons. The former is one where paranoia runs rampant, trade would be virtually non-existent and nearly all resources would be used to merely survive. The latter looks much more like a typical medieval society with normal superstitions and fears.

This distinction allows random encounters to impact the game world in a far more interesting and organic way. Dragons don’t exist in Averoigne. No one has ever seen one. Therefore, when the fumbling around of the PCs results in a dragon showing up in Averoigne, it is going to be a major event worthy of an adventure.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Christ is Born!

Mary, why are you amazed and awed by what was done in you? And she answers, “For in time I have brought forth a timeless Son. But I have no understanding of His conception. Husbandless am I: how can I bear a son? Who has ever seen seedless childbirth? But where God wills, the order found in nature is overcome, as it is written.” So Christ was born from the Virgin Maiden, in Bethlehem of Judea. — Kathisma of the Nativity
He whom nothing can contain has been contained in a womb. He is in the Father’s bosom and His Mother’s embrace. How can this be, but as He knows and willed and was well pleased. Fleshless as He was, He willingly took flesh. And He Who Is became what He was not, for us. And while departing not from His own nature, He shared in our nature’s substance. So Christ was born with dual natures, wishing to replenish the world on high. — Kathisma of the Nativity
Here is to hoping and praying that this Christmas brings everyone many, many blessings. Merry Christmas.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Saintly Saturday: St. Eugenia of Rome

Christmas Eve is the Feast day of St. Eugenia the Nun-martyr of Rome. Though born in Rome, St. Eugenia actually grew up in Alexandria because her father was sent there to be the Prefect of Egypt by Emperor Commodus (A.D. 180-192).

During a period when Christians were banned from the city, she encountered the Epistles of St. Paul. This made her wish with all her heart to become a Christian — something she kept secret from her parents. Under the pretense of enjoying the countryside at a family estate outside the city, she arranged to be taken to a monastery to learn more about Christianity.

There she was baptized by the Bishop Elias who learned of her coming through a vision. He then blessed her to pursue asceticism at the monastery disguised as the monk Eugene.

Having a gift for healing, she garnered the attention of a rich young woman named Melanthia. Wishing to lure what she thought was a young monk away from the ascetic life, she threw herself at the saint. When spurned, she accused St. Eugenia of rape. The trial went before her father, the Prefect, where she was forced to reveal her true identity.

Eventually, the rest of her family came to believe in Christ and her father (as Prefect) was shortly thereafter martyred. The family then moved back to Rome, where St. Eugenia was eventually arrested and martyred herself.

Personally, this is one of my favorite stories among the lives of the saints. I think it has to do with the fact that I have a soft spot for Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night and stories like it. I love the drama created by mistaken identity — especially when that mistaken identity is one that is chosen rather than forced. As I have been meditating upon this story this week, it occurs to me that this is one of the reasons why I also have a soft-spot for half-orcs — the demi-human race I prefer over all others.

I have to admit, though, that I am not overly fond of the various iterations of half-orc that came out after 1ed AD&D. The reason I like this version better than all others can be found in the description of half-orcs in the PH:
Orcs are fecund and create many cross-breeds, most of the offspring of such being typically orcish. However, some one-tenth of orc-human mongrels ore sufficiently non-orcish to pass for human.
Furthermore, because of this affinity towards humanity, half-orc player characters are able to be all of these various classes. The implication is that the other 90% of half-orcs are functionally orcs — 1 HD monsters.

Thus, half-orcs (if played according to their description) do not go around proudly declaring their orcish heritage, but rather hide it choosing, rather, to disguise themselves as humans so as to blend into a society in which they believe they can eek out a better life. This could also be true of half-elves (those that choose to live in human society — which brings up the very interesting question as why they chose human over elvish society).

Unfortunately, our tendency as role-players is to play half-orcs and half-elves as full-blooded orcs or elves with a different set of mechanical advantages (I am guilty as the next guy). This can be seen in the fact that 3ed half-orcs look and play like orcs in virtually everything except name. Personally, I think the source of this tendency is the Racial Preferences Table, which all but declares that half-orcs despise just about everybody, lending credence to the idea that they are open about being an orc.

How much more interesting would it be, though, if all of that antipathy were kept secret? What if there was a real incentive to pretending to be human and avoid detection as a half-orc (or half-elf)? This is when stories of mistaken identity of our own creation can become part of play — where we can make our own Eugenias and Violas.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Saintly Saturday: St. Daniel the Prophet

Today is the Feast of Daniel the Prophet and the Three Holy Youths (also known as Shadrach, Meshach and Abednago). They were part of the generation that were taken into Babylon as captives around 599 B.C. by King Nebuchadnezzar. All four, being of the princely lineage of Judah, were subsequently singled out to be taken into the royal court to be trained as pages. It was there that Daniel showed himself more wise than all the Chaldean sages, the Three Youths were thrown into the fire for refusing to worship idols and Daniel received his visions.

While there are plenty of fantastic images and creatures that can be found within the visions seen by Daniel, today I am rather going to concentrate on a portion of the Book of Daniel many folks may not be aware of. The textual witness for the Book of Daniel is rather complicated. Portions appear to have been written in Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek. There are also two very different versions of Greek.

When the Masoretes began to compile the Hebrew Bible after the fall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70., they rejected those texts that had been written in Greek. Thus, the Mesoretic Text of the OT (which forms the basis of most translations of the Bible in English) does not contain certain parts of the Book of Daniel which were written in Greek. One such section is an entertaining little story popularly known as Bel and the Dragon.

Ostensibly a polemic against idol worship, the story has Daniel convincing his friend King Cyrus of Persia that he shouldn’t waste his time with idolatry. The story is called Bel and the Dragon because the story revolves around the destruction of the idols of Bel (another name for the Babylonian god Marduk) and a dragon.

The fun comes from the descriptions of these conflicts and how they might inspire adventures and even a dungeon, of sorts. The priests of Bel claim that their God ate twelve bushels of flour, forty sheep and six measures of wine every day. This was seen to be true because all that food would disappear every day — “eaten” by Bel. In reality, the seventy priests and their families snuck into the sanctuary every night through a secret door in the floor to eat the food themselves. Daniel exposed their ruse by spreading a thin layer of flour on the floor which revealed the foot prints of the real culprits.

Daniel then destroys the dragon (which also “ate” sacrifices) by shoving balls of boiled pitch, fat and hair down the its throat. As a result, it burst.

There are several interesting possibilities here. The temple of Bel could in reality be a den of thieves who are pulling the wool over the eyes of the locals. It could also be an abandoned temple (formerly occupied by thieves and con-men?) with undiscovered secret entrances to dungeons below. In addition, while the story implies that the dragon destroyed by Daniel is a statue, the language used could be loosely interpreted to indicate an actual dragon. Taken together, these two episodes imply a city-state dominated by two cults. One is a sham put on by the local thieves’ guild and the other is led by an actual dragon.

In order to get everyone’s creative juices flowing, I offer up the following cross-section of the temple of Bel:

Friday, December 16, 2011

Review: Demonspore (and a Challenge for the OSR)

The short: Demonspore by Matt Finch is the best module produced by the OSR to date. Period. Full stop.

The long: Potential module designers of all stripes pay attention.

There are other modules that look better (see anything by Paizo which probably has the highest production values in the industry). There are other modules which are far more clever and weird (Matt Finch’s own The Spire of Iron and Crystal is better). There are other modules that have a better and more thought out back story (though the idea of growing your own god is awfully cool, I think the background for James Boney’s The Chasm of the Damned has a lot more potential and Michael Curtis has done a more thorough job with Stonehell).

The reason why I love this module so much can be summed up in Matt’s own words:
If the Referee has a different sort of sinister enemy in mind rather than toadstool-creatures, it is certainly not required to use Stone Cyst of the Shroom Priests as the sequel. Other than the fact the the insidious corruptors of the Toad-Men have some skills in alchemy, no facts about these deceivers are revealed by the material in this module.
Demonspore is actually two separate modules that are connected, but as can be seen above they need not be. Coupled with the fact that Matt has given us three different ways to connect the first part of Demonspore to any extant dungeon/ruin/whatever that happens to be in our own campaign world means that this module wasn’t designed to have a high production value, to be clever and weird or to have an incredible back story. Rather IT WAS DESIGNED TO BE USED.

To me, this is by far the most valuable asset of any module I purchase. While the other three are valuable (and, trust me Demonspore has them in spades) they are rendered meaningless if I can’t actually use the adventure. As a testament to how easy it is to use Demonspore, the very same afternoon that I had skimmed my copy I had seamlessly integrated the entire module into the tentpole megadungeon for my Lost Colonies campaign and it made my own megadungeon better. My players may be exploring Matt’s creation as soon as our next session.

Whether he knows it or not, Matt has stumbled upon the best way for our community to publish a megadungeon. Matt dispenses with any information about where this module is located, other than the fact it is part of a dungeon. He provides several ways that his module connects to the rest of this dungeon. The rest he trusts us with.

Now, imagine if we had available a dozen or so modules written by any number of designers who shared this same format. We, the end users, would then be free to piece them together however we wish in order to form our own unique megadungeon. How much of this megadungeon is our own homebrew and what is published is entirely up to us. The result, I believe, would not only give our generation of gamers the common cultural experience of gaming with broadly used modules, but also allow all of us to have that experience be truly unique to each campaign because of the freedom we would have to use them to construct our own unique megadungeon.

Therefore, I would like to throw down a gauntlet and challenge all of the would-be designers of the OSR to do just this: use the format of Demonspore and produce good quality modular adventures that I guarantee will get used because at least this gamer will gleefully attach them to an existing megadungeon.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Saintly Saturday: Sts. Menas, Hermogenes, & Eugraphos

Today is the Feast of Sts. Menas, Hermogenes, & Eugraphos, Martyrs of Alexandria. Menas was a soldier and a skilled orator, which is why he sometimes called “Most Eloquent.” As such, he was sent from his native Athens to Alexandria to suppress riots that had arisen out of conflicts between pagans and Christians. Not only did St. Menas quiet the conflict, but openly preached the Gospel and converted many of the pagans to Christianity.

Having heard of this development, the Emperor Maximian (A.D. 235-238) sent Hermogenes to purge the city of Christians. In turn, he became a Christian once he saw that the wounds he was inflicting upon Menas miraculously healed.

Then Emperor himself then came to Alexandria; however, he refused to be mollified by either the stoic endurance of Menas and Hermogenes or by the miracles which attended their struggles. Rather, this all made him all the more angry. After personally stabbing to death St. Eugraphos, the personal secretary to St. Menas, he ordered Sts. Menas and Hermogenes to be beheaded. Their decapitated heads, along with that of Eugraphos, were then put into an iron chest and thrown into the sea. Subsequently, these relics were recovered and brought to Constantinople in the ninth century.

For me, the most intriguing part of the this story is the disposal of the saints’ decapitated heads and their subsequent recovery. Can anyone say undersea adventure?

The scenario that immediately leaps to mind is to place a ruin off the coast (possibly hinted at in a treasure map). This ruin is the lair of a Water Naga. She is possession of an iron chest that she is willing to barter for the return of a magical item stolen from her by a group of sahaugin (or some other group of undersea denizens).

I realize this is derivative of something that I did in my Lost Colonies campaign, but I really like the potential of a party either going to the trouble of retrieving said magic device or defeating the naga for the iron chest only to find in contains three skulls. The irony, of course, being that these three skulls, as religious relics, are possibly far more valuable than whatever treasure stolen from the naga in the first place.

Here are some possible powers that the three skulls could give to those who know what they are:

  • Heal as per a Staff of Healing only up to three times per day per target depending on how many skulls the user has in their possession.
  • Increase the effective Charisma of the possessor by one degree per skull. Thus, if the user has a 10 Charisma, one skull would result in a 13, two skulls 16 and three skulls 18. The number of followers attracted by those of level 9+ are doubled for one who posses two skulls and tripled for one who has all three.
  • A spell similar to Comprehend Languages that allows reading, writing and speaking for a duration of 1 turn. This can be cast once per day per skull the user possesses.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Meditating on Ability Bonuses

Awhile ago, I wrote a post about Charisma and Wisdom. In it I challenged the basic assumptions of both ability scores in an attempt to return to the symmetry of Prime Requisites vs. Combat Abilities found in OD&D with later versions of the game that include the Thief as a core class. While thought provoking, I am not sure I was entirely successful.

Recently, James over at Grognardia also wrote about Charisma in a very similar vein to what I was trying to get at in my own, earlier, post. This prompted a brief discussion of ability scores and bonuses that ended up admitting that while the balance found in OD&D is intellectually awesome, in practice it is hard to image a fighter with an 18 Strength not getting some kind of combat bonus since that is how we have played the game for 30+ years.

Yesterday, Jeff of Jeff's Gameblog posted this little gem. At first, I dismissed it out of hand because it made no real sense to me — why would a dumb fighter advance faster than a smart one? Why would a weak MU do any better than a strong one? It then hit me: a dumb fighter would rely more on his fighting ability than would a smarter fighter; a weak MU would rely more on their arcane magic than would a stronger MU.

Imagine for a moment a MU had to move a couch. With a STR of 10+ that couch is going to be lifted/dragged to where it needs to be. With a STR of 8 or less (especially 3!) it is more likely that a spell like Floating Disc is going to be cast in order to move that couch. Who is more likely to be more skilled, faster over time: the MU who uses arcane magic for everything or the one who can rely on other skills to do everyday mundane things? I am beginning to see that it is very plausible to argue the MU with a 3 STR would.

Using my previous re-tooling of Charisma and Wisdom, here are my own initial thoughts about XP bonuses:
Low Strength = Magic-User bonus
Low Dexterity = Cleric Bonus
Low Constitution = Thief Bonus
Low Intelligence = Fighter/Dwarf
Low Awareness = Halfling
Low Charisma = Elf
Here are my explanations:

  • Magic Users — see above.
  • Clerics are more likely to solve problems face-to-face therefore discouraging missile combat as a way to solve problems.
  • Thieves that have lower hit points are much more likely to solve problems by avoiding combat and being sneaky.
  • Fighters and Dwarves that are intelligent (able to form strategy and planning) are less likely to rely on their sword/axe arm.
  • Halflings (Hobbits) are naturally inclined to live happily in their own little bubble without much awareness of the outside world. Those who are aware just aren't natural hobbits.
  • Elves, being long-lived and the one race inclined to being two classes at once, represent the impulse to do everything sans divine help. The less in tune with God, the more likely the elf will succeed doing what elves do. This also gives elves a nice, sinister spin.

This all got me thinking about the inherent symmetry of OD&D vs. combat bonuses built into Prime Requisites and how I can have my cake and eat it, too. With XP bonuses divorced from Prime Requisites, it is possible to give every ability score a combat bonus/penalty.

Using my previous re-tooling of Charisma and Wisdom, here are my initial thoughts:
Strength = to hit bonus melee
Dexterity = to hit bonus ranged
Constitution = hit points bonus
Intelligence = henchmen number & loyalty
Awareness = damage bonus
Charisma = armor class bonus
The first three are pretty standard and therefore don't need much explanation. The last three, however, break the mold.

  • Intelligence — This requires a bit of reverse engineering. If a fighter is more fighter-like by relying on their sword, than the opposite of that would be a fighter who relies on planning — leading a number of henchmen. In addition, which class is most likely to take advantage of henchmen — the Magic-User!
  • Awareness — This represents the ability to be aware of weaknesses in an opponent's defenses.
  • Charisma — Someone who has divine protection is going to be harder to hit.

It should be noted, that there are some editions of D&D where certain combat bonuses are only available to fighters. There are a couple of ways to simulate this. The first is to have additional bonuses associated with Prime Requisites that are only available to the given class. Here are some initial thoughts (some of which already duplicate some existing rules):
Strength = Fighters and Dwarves get a bonus to encumbrance (they are trained to move in armor). If that doesn't float your boat, how about DR when armor is worn?
Dexterity = Elves get a bonus to saving throws involving balance (death/breath)
Constitution = Halflings get a bonus to saving throws involving durability (poison/spells)
Intelligence = Magic-Users get to know more spells/get bonus spells
Awareness = Thieves get bonuses to Thief Skills
Charisma = Clerics gets bonus spells
Secondly, rather than getting all the the various combat bonuses, characters would only get the bonus associated with their class plus one other of their choice (thus giving classes a bit of diversity).


Saturday, December 3, 2011

Saintly Saturday: St. Zephaniah the Prophet

Today is the feast of St. Zephaniah the Prophet. The textual witness of the book named after him indicates that Zephaniah was a contemporary of King Josiah and took part in the religious reform the king championed once he reached adulthood. This places the prophet in context of 2 Kings 22-23 (or 4 Kings by LXX reckoning). His prophecy was most likely written at the time of Josiah’s minority (the king was crowned at the age of eight).

A couple of weeks ago, I pointed out that prophets make very good clerics. Indeed, Roger of Roles, Rules & Rolls took this idea and ran with it . . . to very good effect. The more I meditate upon this idea, the more I like it. This is only reinforced by reading the Prophecy of Zephaniah and 2 Kings. Here are some highlights:

  • The Temple is in serious disrepair (which can easily be interpreted to be ruins). King Josiah sends Hilkiah the high priest to gather all the silver inside the Temple in order to melt it down to pay for repairs. While inside searching for treasure, Hilkiah finds a book (some biblical scholars identify this as Deuteronomy). The discovery of this book leads to the religious reform that marks the reign of King Josiah. This story is very much suggestive of an expedition into a dungeon sponsored by a local ruler. The coolest part is that the dungeon is in the middle of the city.
  • Once the book is found, King Josiah seeks out the counsel of God. The high priest Hilkiah and his companions Ahikam, Achbor, Shaphan and Asaiah go to find the Prophetess Huldah. She then gives them a prophecy. There are three things I find very compelling about this:
  1. The very fact that Huldah is a woman speaks to the freedom with which players could play female clerics.
  2. Hilkiah, as high priest, needs to go to a prophetess. This clearly differentiates the abilities of a priest (non-spell caster?) and a prophet (cleric).
  3. Finally, this can be interpreted as the adventuring group that delved into the temple ruins who are now going on a wilderness adventure to find Huldah.
  • Zephaniah gives us several landmarks found within the city:
  1. The Fish Gate
  2. The New Quarter
  3. The Hallows
  4. The Temple, which one must go up a stairway to arrive at
  5. Hills, which seem to be inside the city according to the context
  6. Some kind of merchant sector (unnamed)
  • Zephaniah also bears witness to three cults that exist within the city:
  1. Baal — of interest, the word “priesthood” used in context of Baal is a different word than is used to describe the Levite priesthood. The word used for Baal connotes the worship of idols. I would interpret that the priests of Baal, therefore, are probably magic-users whose spells are reskinned to simulate blood-magic.
  2. Milcom — a deity worshipped by the Ammonites associated with child sacrifice.
  3. An astrological religion where practitioners prostrate themselves on roof tops to the stars. This, again, lends itself well to the idea of a priesthood made up of magic-users.
All of this suggest a very interesting urban campaign where the tentpole megadungeon is a ruined temple, cults that wield arcane magic and sacrifice children (do they steal them?) vie for influence and the power of the government is weak because there is a child on the thrown. In addition, from the historical point of view, the neighboring Assyrians, who have controlled territories once under the rule of the king, are also weakened — thus creating a marvelous backdrop for all kinds of player character shenanigans.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Lost Colonies Session 48

A question that one might ask me (a minimalist when it comes to preparation) is how do you prepare entire Brain Lasher city in full knowledge that your players may take one look at it and run very far away? Indeed, it is a question I have been asking myself. My solution (besides answering some broad questions): draw a sketch of what the party might see looking at the city from a distance and hand it to my players. They had freed one of the Mongrel Man slaves who, though unwilling to accompany the party into the city, was perfectly happy to answer any questions the party might have about what they were looking at.

What ensued turned into an hour-long conversation/planning session. Every spell, scroll, potion, wand and one-shot device was put on the table. They brain-stormed attacks, entry routes, escape routes, rallying points, distractions and goals. As the planning proceeded, there was a very dangerous look that I recognized in the eyes of my players — a look that said, “This could work.” By the time they were ready to act, even players who had started the evening trying to convince everybody to retreat were on board with the plan and ready to play their part.

The focal point of the plan was a tower that stood grotesquely at the center of the city. It seemed biological in nature, with four feet that twisted around each other into a support for four vein-laced globes. At its base was the portal that the party was interested in finding. This, in turn, was surrounded my miles of machinery maintained by the mongrel men slaves. The feet of the tower pulsed as the energy produced by the machines and the portal flowed upward toward the globes. This giant biological machine was both where the majority of the Brain Lashers lived and where they refined that energy into pure azoth.

The party figured that if they could take out one or two of the leg supports of the tower, the whole thing could come crashing down. Depending on how the denizens reacted, they had several options on what they could do in the chaos. But first, they created a distraction by getting the resident flailsnails to stampede (as much as flailsnails do stampede). Using a cocktail of spells and potions, they set charges with any and every combustible devise/substance that they owned and fired several spells into the charges to get them to go off.

The flailsnails slowed down the reaction time of the natives which allowed the party to continue guerrilla attacks against a group of Brain Lashers who were pooling their powers to try and prevent the tower from falling. This state of confusion did not last long, however, and the party soon found themselves surrounded by Brain Lashers and some of their demonic minions. The party was in no position to retreat anywhere but through the portal; however, in their final push to escape, the Brain Lashers tasked with keeping up the tower were so decimated that the tower came crashing down just as the last of the party dived through the portal. Surprisingly, despite the desperate situation, only one corpse needed to make the trip — Ahkmed’s henchmen Kavella the Elf. The rest were beaten and bloodied, but alive.

The destruction that followed destroyed an entire section of the city, including a good amount of the machines designed to keep the portal stable. Thus, the party had effectively cut off pursuit. Of course, they were now trapped on the other side, which is where our session ended.

Sunday, November 27, 2011


Gleefully taking my own advice, one of the many ideas I have stolen from James’ Dwimmermount campaign is azoth, known to my players as liquid magic. As I have worked this week to prepare a Brain Lasher city, azoth and its origin in quintessence have played a very large role.

The first question that I asked of myself when detailing the city was: to what purpose was this city built? What was the reason Brain Lashers wanted to live here en masse? (Thus, despite the weirdness of the environment, my own tendency toward Gygaxian naturalism rears its head). The answer: azoth.

Unlike in Dwimmermount, where azoth mysteriously rained down on various planets at some point in the past, the existence of azoth in my campaign is quite deliberate. The Brain Lashers “mine” it from various suitable dimensions. It is a very laborious and slow process, but, given the powerful qualities of the end product, (especially since it is almost entirely accomplished by slave labor) they see it as quite worth their while.

I am also putting a subtle Christian spin on the story. Since Brain Lashers have a visage not unlike Cthulhu it should come as no surprise that they (knowingly or unknowingly) serve the demonic outer gods. Thus, their efforts to mine azoth from the quintessence has the negative consequence of literally tearing holes in creation — thus speeding it on its way back to the nothing from whence it came (a little Christian dogma, there).

These holes are the myriad portals my players have found in various parts of my campaign world (though they have yet to voluntarily step through one). Thus, the portal that the party expects to find in the city is actually the very place the Brain Lashers are mining azoth.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Saintly Saturday: St. Alypius the Stylite

Today is the Feast of St. Alypius the Stylite — where the title Stylite refers to that wonderfully strange monastic practice of living life atop a pillar. His mother was a Christian and was widowed early in the life of her son. Therefore, she sent him to be educated by the Bishop Theodore. She then gave all that she owned to the poor, took up the ascetic life and became a deaconess.

As an aside, this is why and how I can justify female cleric characters in my games. Though the deaconess was required to be celibate (or widowed, as in the case of Alypius' mother) and older (40 years old), women were ordained in the ancient church. They primarily served in monasteries and ministered to women and girls, especially during sacraments that required physical contact like baptism — it was seen as inappropriate for male priests and bishops to physically handle women. Historically, the ordination of the deaconess largely fell out of practice around the 9th century, though there are still pockets where the practice still exists.

While he was traveling with the bishop to Constantinople, St. Alypius received a vision from St. Euphemia to build a church dedicated to her in the pace of his birth, the city of Adrianopolis. Once he had raised enough funds, he set about building the church on the site of a dilapidated pagan temple. The site was infested by devils. Having had the desire to lead an ascetic life since his youth, Alypius erected a pillar on top of a pagan tomb next where the church was to be built. There, he battled the devils on a nightly basis. Their favorite attack was to pelt him with stones. He was finally able to drive them away when he had all the protections of his small shelter removed and he was completely exposed to the elements.

St. Alypius remained upon his pillar for fifty-three years. Two monasteries were built at the site during his lifetime — one for men and one for women. He reposed at the age of 118 in the year A.D. 640. His relics remain in the church he built in honor of St. Euphemia.

Besides the various Christian artifacts that can be found in the early editions of D&D, it is stories like those of St. Alypius that make me entirely comfortable with the idea that D&D is compatible with Christianity. His story reads like the character arc of a typical D&D cleric. He is apprenticed to a bishop (levels 1 to 3). He then heads off on his own adventure — that wonderful trope of the temple ruins (levels 4-6). He battles the denizens of this location based adventure and finally emerges victorious (levels 7-9). Having collected enough funds, he builds a church and begins to attract followers (the two monasteries).

As I have said before (and I am sure I will say again), the idea of the stylite is marvelously bizarre. It is a great way to add flavor to a fantasy setting — and I love the fact that it comes from an established Christian practice.


Stylite Pillars

These structures appear in various forms, but are always columnar with enough space on the top for a single person to stand or sit. They are almost always found in remote wilderness and radiate of magic when detected for. This magic manifests when someone tries to spend the night praying atop the pillar. When attempting to do so, a wandering monster check should be made every hour, with a minimum of one wandering monster encounter for the night. These encounters do not result in the loss either of sleep or the gaining of spells.

At the end of the night, non-clerics gain the effects of a Bless spell for 24 hours. Clerics may choose one of the following benefits:

  • The effects of a Bless spell for 24 hours.
  • The ability to Turn Undead at one level higher for 24 hours.
  • An extra spell (to be determined by the Referee).

Stylite Pillars cannot be moved.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Giving Thanks

I just wanted to take some time on this Thanksgiving Day to say thanks to everyone who has read my ramblings, commented, challenged and otherwise made the effort to maintain this corner of the blogosphere so rewarding. Plus, enjoy:


It is proper and right to sing to You, bless You, praise You, thank You and worship You in all places of Your dominion; for You are God ineffable, beyond comprehension, invisible, beyond understanding, existing forever and always the same; You and Your only begotten Son and Your Holy Spirit. You brought us into being out of nothing, and when we fell, You raised us up again. You did not cease doing everything until You led us to heaven and granted us Your kingdom to come. For all these things we thank You and Your only begotten Son and Your Holy Spirit; for all things that we know and do not know, for blessings seen and unseen that have been bestowed upon us. — Anaphora of St. John Chrysostom

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Lost Colonies Session 47

This was a very unusual session. Normally, while there is a fare share of player & character interaction, discussion about what to do and conversation with NPCs, a majority of time is spent exploring, fighting monsters, dealing with traps, hauling home treasure and figuring out how best to spend that treasure. In contrast, this session was almost entirely a huge role-play discussion about what to do next. While there was some concern from some players about the fact that not much happened over the course of the evening, I had to admit that I had a lot of fun.

The evening began with trying to figure out how to get someone hooked up to the pilot's seat of the Brain Lasher ship. The cockpit had what looked like a crown with umbilical cords attached to the flesh-like interior of the ship. Gilek the Gnome (who has turned out to be a bit of a daredevil) tried first, with disastrous effects (a horrendously failed saving throw resulted in INT loss). This put fear in several of the other players until one of the newer guys figured he had nothing to lose, because he hadn't even figured out the name of his character yet (YES! old school character creation in action!).

Being a magic-user, Dimiter (earning a name after accomplishing something a long-standing character could not), his INT score held up to the mental onslaught of the ship sending mental tendrils into his cortex. Thus began what, in essence, was a session-long discussion.

I had fun playing up the ship as an alien intelligence. I answered questions with monosyllabic answers whenever possible and when I couldn't, I tried to answer with another question. It was fun seeing the party try and plan how to get around the logic of the ship.

The crux of the issue was that the party needed a key and some food in order to be able to even think about getting home. On the body of the Brain Lasher, the party had found a gem with what we would describe as a laser etching of a trident on the interior of the stone. They figured they had the key. So they set about getting some food.

On the horizon was what looked to be several islands to what the party designated south-east and a larger land mass on the horizon to the north. They decided to head to the islands where they found some plant-life with brain sacks half-buried under the sand at the base of the simple root system. Much hilarity ensued as Gilek insisted on experimenting with the plants prior to taking them back to the ship (where anything disastrous might destroy the ship). In short, many a save vs. poison roll failed with non-deadly but funny results. Eventually, the gnome was unconscious on the sand and the rest of the party was satisfied that the plants were safe enough.

Though not ideal and certainly not as nutritious as a sentient being, the ship admitted that the plants were "palatable." Having thus secured what they believed to be the key and a food source, the discussion turned to what to do next. This is when all chaos broke out in what ended up being a huge discussion where players struggled with what they wanted to do, what they thought their characters wanted to do and what they thought the party should do.

Rather than try and describe it all in any kind of detail, I'll just hit some highlights:

  • Gilek advocated exploring the larger landmass, even if for only an hour (when else will we ever get to see something like this?)
  • Ahkmed had some time ago procured a manual about strange machines written in the same language used by the Yellow Faces. While preparations for getting food were underway he had managed to decipher enough of it that he knew he wanted some exotic metals to start experimenting with.
  • The party noticed that the trident etched inside the key matched a trident on a icosahedron map that the party had acquired ages ago, but had not pursued.
  • The ship informed them that the map probably lead to the city where the Yellow Faces (referred to by the ship as Cyn) came from.
  • The ship also informed the party that there was a Brain Lasher city a few days travel inland on the larger landmass.
  • The party determined that the Cyn who was on the ship when they were attacked is from a group that is currently allied with the Brain Lashers and at war with other types of Cyn.

The sentiment of the group was how often do we get to go adventure in a Brain Lasher city? So, albeit reluctantly, the group set foot on the larger landmass to head inland.

Within a day, they ran into a patrol of mongrel men mounted upon flailsnails. Initially, the party wanted to avoid any contact (and having surprise, they could have); however, Gilek noticed that the mongrel men had something attached to the back of their neck. Figuring that this was some kind of mind-control device, he attacked in hopes of freeing one or more of them to gain more information.

Only one mongrel man survived the combat and the removal of the device (which was organic and tentacled — some of which were wrapped around the base of the brain). Though confused and terrified, the party did manage to get information about the city itself.

This led to second thoughts both for and against going on to the city. Three key pieces of information were at play:

  • Part of the population were Cyn.
  • Travel to and from the city mainly occurred via an inter-dimensional portal somewhere in the city.
  • The majority of the population were slaves, controlled by the same device as the mongrel men.

A good number of players were interested in at least scouting out the city in hopes of being able to find a way of inciting a slave revolt to disguise their attempts to either take out as many Cyn as possible or finding the portal. There were also a number of players who wanted to retreat back to the ship and try to get home that way.

I had to end the session with pinning down the party's intention. Though I knew there was a Brain Lasher city, I had not really expected the party to go there, thus I needed to know whether or not I had to get ready for such an adventure. In the end, I have a very interesting week of preparation ahead of me...

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Saintly Saturday: St. Obadiah the Prophet

Today is the feast day of the Prophet Obadiah, who gives us one of the shortest books in all of Scripture (it is only 21 verses). As such, there is very little textual evidence to nail down which of the dozen or so men named Obadiah in Scripture he might be. The most popular attribution, though, is the Obadiah mentioned in the eighteenth chapter of 1 Kings (or 3 Kings if you prefer the LXX reckoning).

He was Master of the Palace in the court of Ahab. Though the king had turned away from God, Obadiah secretly remained faithful. During the persecution of the prophets by Ahab's queen, Jezebel, Obadiah hid one hundred of them away in a cave (fifty at a time) to shelter, protect and feed them. It was Obadiah that announced the presence of Elijah to Ahab in prelude to one of my favorite stories from the OT: Elijah vs. the priests of Baal on Mt. Carmel.

For those who claim to prefer the pulpiness of S&S, I only ask that you re-read (read for the first time?) 1 Kings 18. Though it is a different genre than the writings of REH, HPL, CAS etc., it does call to mind the conflict between the followers of Mitra and the devotees of Set one might find in a tale about everyone's favorite Cimmerian.

It doesn't take a lot of imagination to extrapolate this story into the basis for a campaign. There is a city-state with an evil king and his even more sinister queen. The nasty blood cult of Baal holds sway over most of the population. The followers of Elohim work in secret to protect their own. There are lost, antediluvian civilizations to discover and explore in addition to the tombs of such known civilizations as the Egyptians, the Babylonians and the Assyrians (all of which scream dungeon!). To boot, all three of the core classes from OD&D can be represented.

The aspect I like best of this set-up is the fact that Prophets make very good Clerics. Not only does the armored holy warrior jive well with the likes of Obadiah ( who opens his prophecy with a call to arms: "Up! Let us march against this people. Into battle!"), but the spell list conforms very well with the types of miracles one finds in the OT. Even Raise Dead can be said to have used by Elijah's successor Elisha with the son of the Shunnemite woman.

In other words, Obadiah doesn't just introduce Elijah to Ahab, but introduces us to a way to play a D&D campaign that cleaves closely to both Scripture and the S&S roots of the game.

Friday, November 18, 2011

My First Long-Running Traveller Campaign

If I am honest, over the years I have probably spent more money on Traveller than I have on D&D — I certainly own a lot of Traveller related stuff that takes up more space on my bookshelf than my D&D books. That money, however, has never produced any kind of long-term campaign. It's not that my fiends and I didn't play Traveller (we did), it's that we had a lot more fun playing the mini-game of character and world creation than we did when we finally got around to doing something with those characters and worlds.

I mention this because in my Lost Colonies campaign, there is a real possibility that my players not only will not be heading back to Headwaters any time soon, but may be hopping from one world to the next in ways that I will not be able to predict. I do have several options available to me, one of which I don't relish at all: creating from scratch all of the various possible choices my players could make. I could also assign various pre-fab campaign worlds to each of those possible choices. While I certainly have a couple in mind to have as options, I don't have enough and too many of them are not only interchangeable, but some of my players are also intimately familiar with them.

Enter Judges Guild. Back in 1980 and 1981, Rudy Kraft produced his Portals series of mini-campaigns. Each has a radically different flavor than that found in a typical D&D world and they are all connected by a series of portals that teleport players in-between worlds (thus, giving them all a dungeon-like feel). The world that I find most inspiring is the world presented in Portals of Twilight.

Whereas the other two installments derived their uniqueness from their inhabitants, Twilight is unique because of the world itself. The rotation of the planet is parallel to the orbit so that one side is always in light and one in darkness. Thus, the only inhabitable part of the planet in the narrow strip of twilight along the equator. This sounds like something straight out of Traveller.

Thus, the inspiration for my solution for dealing with the potential meanderings of my players: revisit the mini-game of world creation in Traveller. This method has several things I find very attractive:

  • It is random — which usually results in more creativity on my part.
  • It's fun — I have literally spent days of my life creating sub-sectors for use in Traveller.
  • All the results can be recorded in a simple code wherein there will be enough information for me to be able to improvise should I need to.
  • I don't have to waste a whole lot of time creating a bunch of worlds my players will never visit.

I do this with a very real sense of irony — my very first long-term Traveller campaign has turned out to be D&D.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Monster: Enslaver

For those of you that read my last Lost Colonies Session report, you know that I was very much inspired by the Moon Things of Realms of Crawling Chaos. I do, however, have to admit, I fiddled with the statistics and made my own version (something that I do on a regular basis, by the way, to keep some of my players on their toes):


In all truth I tell you, everyone who commits sin is a slave. — John 8:34

Number Appearing: 3d4 (1d6 x 10)
% in Lair: 15%
Alignment: Chaotic
Armor Class: 8
Move: 9
Hit Dice: 1+1
Attacks: by weapon or see below
Special: Damage Reduction, Disarm, Sleep attack — see below
Save: F2
Morale: 8
Hoard Class: XVIII
XP: 33

Enslavers are a cephalopod-like semi-humanoid race originally engineered by Brain Lashers for the purpose of hunting down and capturing food. Although still found in service to their designers, they have been found to be in service to other creatures and even as independent slavers and pirates.

Their spineless bodies not only allow them to fit through tiny spaces and elongate their limbs into whip-like weapons, but it allows them to "roll with the punch." As a result, they only take half-damage from all normal attacks. Cold and fire attacks do normal damage and they take double damage from electrical attacks.

Although capable of using normal weapons when attacking, Enslavers prefer to attack first by elongating their limbs in whip-like fashion. A successful attack does no damage, but requires the target to save vs. spells or drop their weapon. Regardless of the success or failure of the save, the Enslaver gets a +2 on their next attack roll. This second attack normally utilizes the mass of squirming tentacles Enslavers have in place of a face. A successful attack has a similar effect as a Sleep spell (no save). This attack is not magical in nature and therefore can affect elves.

Enslavers have ultraviolet vision.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Lost Colonies Session 46

I have to admit, I had a lot of fun this session because one of the things I enjoy most is watching players react to circumstances and this session saw a lot of really great reactions.

After doing some last minute purchases and other house keeping, the party secured the services of a sailing ship to take them down the coast to the elf lands. They never got there.

In preparation for the evening's fun, I had pre-rolled random encounters and this is where I have to admit that I do not always strictly follow random table rolls. The primary reason I like to use random tables is that they challenge me to be creative. Therefore, when I am inspired by a roll that does not necessarily strictly adhere to the result I will run with it.

In this particular case, there was to be one encounter with pirates. Now, as much as I love Errol Flynn's Captain Blood, I am not much interested in pirates in context of a fantasy campaign. However, one of the most intriguing monster entries from Realms of Crawling Chaos is the Moon Thing. Though they are inspiringly characterized as squishy toad-like semi-humanoids with a mass of tentacles instead of a face, the most consequential description about them is this:
Moon things have an affinity for the sea, and are sailors, pirates, and slavers. They capture humans to sell as slaves in faraway lands and on other planets.
Therefore, this became the basis for what appeared on the horizon as the players lazily sailed south (even though Hamlen had bought some pipes and was annoying everyone as he tried, and failed, to become a competent musician.

Using his spyglass, Dn. Swibish caught a glimpse of a shadowed outline within what appeared to be a storm cloud. Given that the rest of the party has often accused the deacon from Redwraith of exaggeration, his warnings went unheeded until it was too late. A fast moving galley sporting a tentacled ram slammed into the side of their ship and engaged boarding ramps.

The subsequent battle did not go well for the moon things. Despite managing to flank the party, incapacitating and even capturing several party members and crew, the moon things were made mince meat. The party made good use of spells, missile weapons from the crow's nest and coordinated attacks.

However, the moon things were not alone. They were being lead by another Yellow Face, this one apparently with mental powers able to do damage by just thinking about it (literally). Therefore, despite the relative success against the moon things, the party very quickly had to concentrate fire on Yellow Face in order to neutralize him as soon as possible. This gave the haggard moon things the chance to get away with prisoners.

The pirate galley began to pull away from the party's ship with captives in tow, so the party went on the offensive. This is when things started to go south for the party. Coleman and Raine (two of the newer characters) failed to cleanly jump across, which resulted in their capture. Getting rid of Yellow Face also proved much more difficult than anticipated (despite a successful Hold spell).

This capture and delay allowed the pirates enough time to start up their engines, create an energy field and hop into a different dimension. This encouraged the party to rush below deck where they found their captive party members and crew plugged into a large magical/biological engine, having replaced several desiccated and emaciated corpses on the floor.

Unfortunately for the party, some of this vision was a mental illusion and when they went to rescue their companions, they instead found themselves in range of the melee attack of a Brain Lasher. This reveal, by the way, produced one of the truly great reactions of the campaign so far.

I have been hinting throughout the campaign that Brain Lashers are lurking behind the scenes, but this is the first time the party came face to face with one. Dn. Goram has been voicing fear of ever encountering one ever since the very first cthuloid visage showed up in the campaign. Upon actually seeing one, his player (and therefore Dn. Goram) completely freaked out.

It all came down to one initiative roll. Dn. Swibish was in the grip of the Brain Lasher and his brain was poised to be sucked out of his skull. Had the party lost initiative, he would have died.

While he was beating the Brain Lasher corpse into pulp (to make sure it was dead-dead), the rest of the party was busy exploring those things that the illusion had hidden. They found their captured party members alive, but minus several INT points (brain damage from being plugged into the machine). There was a wonderful aha! moment when the party put the pieces together and correctly surmised that the Brain Lasher had raided their vessel in order to refuel.

The main part of the vessel disguised by the illusion was the cockpit, wherein controls seemed to be hooked up to the cranium of the pilot. There was also a large dial covered in an unknown writing.

The session ended with the party realizing that they had to somehow figure out how to power and pilot this vehicle if they wished to get home.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Saintly Saturday: St. Martin of Tours

As Theodoric pointed out yesterday, most of the world commemorates St. Martin of Tours on November 11th; however, there are pockets where his feast is kept on the 12th — which is where he appears on the Greek calendar. Therefore, those of us who like him have an excuse for celebrating two days in a row.

St. Martin was a 4th century bishop born to pagan parents. He became a catechumen (someone studying to become a Christian) at a young age. Baptized at the age of 22, he went on to become a monastic in Gaul before taking on the mantel of a bishop.

One of the most famous stories of St. Martin comes from when he was still a catechumen. He was serving in the Roman army when he saw an ill-clad beggar asking for alms. With nothing but the clothes on his back to give, the saint tore his military cloak in two and gave half to the beggar. Later that night, Jesus Christ Himself appeared to Martin, clothed in the cloak he had given the beggar.

This cloak was then kept as a relic in a sanctuary. In latin, the word cloak is cappella which is what the sanctuary came to be called. Those who took care of the sanctuary came to be called cappellani. In English, these two words form the basis from which we get the words chapel and chaplain.

Besides my own personal love and interest in St. Martin, I was also very eager to delve into his life because he informs by own understanding of Averoigne. Though Tours is outside the traditional boundaries of where Averoigne is thought to be, St. Martin nonetheless casts a very large shadow over Gaul and even over all of Western Christendom. He was instrumental in sowing the seeds that would blossom into the Western monastic tradition. Therefore, St. Martin is a figure I very much want to bring into the tapestry that is my version of Averoigne.

One easy way to do this is to simply have his cappella as a clerical magical artifact in the campaign. Indeed, there are plenty of examples of relics of saints that are pieces of clothing. I personally have seen shoes and strips of cloth used as foci for prayer and indeed a source of healing. Therefore, there are a plethora of opportunities to place unique magic items within a campaign world.

The Cloak of St. Martinus

This disheveled and apparently misused cloak has been torn in two and sown back together again; however, it radiates of magic if a Detect Magic spell is cast upon it. It is wearable by anyone, and its affects depend upon wearer's Wisdom score.

  • For those that have a penalty due to a low Wisdom, the cloak serves as a Cloak of Protection. The protection bonus is the inverse score of the Wisdom penalty. Thus, for someone with a Wisdom score of 3 (which has a penalty of -3), the cloak would have a bonus of +3.
  • For those who have a Wisdom bonus, the cloak grants bonus cleric spells: one 1st level if the bonus is +1, one 2nd level if the bonus is +2 and one 3rd level if the bonus is +3. These spells are cumulative (a Wisdom score of 18 would grant 3 spells — one each: 1st, 2nd and 3rd) and are in addition to any other bonus spells a cleric may already receive for a high Wisdom. These bonus spells are granted to anyone regardless of class and are determined randomly. The spells stay until they are used in a creative/productive manner (no casting a utility spell like Water Breathing just to get rid of it).
  • For those who have no Wisdom Bonus, the cloak allows an Augury spell to be cast once per day.

Friday, November 11, 2011

An Elegant Astral Plane

Just a quick note: I have had a very busy week with a combination of travel out of town and family in town. So, it has been relatively quiet around here; however, I did want to share a thought that occurred to me after reading James' post on the Astral Plane.

I have long been fascinated by the possibility of planar travel in D&D. The closest I have ever come to it in play, however, was a semi-Monte Haul campaign I played when I was (much) younger. It pitted my paladin against the likes of Githyanki and their ilk. While I did have fun playing in that campaign, I have never bothered to run one similar myself because, like James, I found all the specific fiddly bits surrounding planar travel to be unwieldy and discouraging. This has always been a disappointment because I have always liked the idea (one of the only reasons why I look back on the paladin vs. Githyanki campaign with any fondness at all).

I have therefore been contemplating simple ways to indicate that players are no longer in Kansas anymore. One of the more interesting experiments I ran during my Lost Colonies campaign saw the players in a City of Brass-type setting. In order to clue the players into the fact that this was abnormal, we used a combat system similar to that of Chainmail rather than D&D. In other words, simple (and universal) mechanics can go a long way to achieving the feel of planar travel.

One of the more compelling ideas I had this week (particularly for the Astral plane) was to switch around the affects of characteristic bonuses. Thus, the three physical abilities (Str, Dex and Con) would effectively function as Int, Wis and Cha and vice versa. Thus, that 18 Str fighter with a 3 Int would suddenly be fighting at a -3 rather than a +3. Mechanically, this simply implies that physical tasks in the Astral Plane are rather tasks of the intellect and will and that intellectual matters are more akin to a physical self-awareness.

What other simple mechanical changes could represent other planes?

Monday, November 7, 2011

Lost Colonies Session 45

This last session was primarily about logistics. The party wanted to get back to Headwaters in order to be reunited with Hamlen and Grak in addition to taking care of some unfinished business (mainly, retrieving a dragon's hoard that they had not been able to haul out of the dungeon in the wake of the near TPK when confronting said dragon). It also saw the introduction of several new players (including a father/son combo). So we had to set aside some time to trying to introduce folks to the system and allow them to roll up characters.

The center piece of the evening was a three-way battle for the dragon hoard. A tribe of bugbears had discovered the dragon lair and were in process of claiming it as their own when a bulette showed up looking for a meal (I love random encounter tables). The battle was such that some of the higher level characters could wade into the midst of the melee while the lower level characters were able to be tactically significant by raining down missile fire at areas not currently occupied by party members (never underestimate the value of concentrated missile fire — it can be devastating).

Once the treasure was loaded into several wagons procured to transport the hoard, and subsequently divvied up among the party, the players spent the rest of the evening spending it. As I've said before, I find the house rule attributed to Arneson of 1 gp spent = 1 xp quite useful. Here are several capital investments that occurred during this session:

  • Hamlen contracted workers to start building a dojo-like sword fighting school.
  • Ahkmed began excavation for his underground home.
  • Dn. Goram got some monastics to start on the elvish illuminated text of Scripture.
  • Several party members pooled resources to hire workers to repair the bridge destroyed several sessions ago by a possessed cloud giant.

These last two happened in the environs of the main human city in my campaign, Trisagia. The party set about getting several pieces of equipment unavailable in Headwaters and then hired a ship to take them back to the elf lands. It seems as if they are interested in playing politics…we'll see.

I forget where, but someone in the blogosphere wondered what would happen to a local economy if a party of adventurers started throwing around bunch of gold. Would there be a lot of inflation? Would it destroy the local economy? etc.

If a lot of money were being poured into the same products in the same economic space, this would increase demand and therefore result in a price hike. My players, however, have been careful how they have spent their money. They have spread out their purchases across a broad landscape, both physically and economically.

As a result, they have attracted workers, created jobs and encouraged economic growth. They have started businesses (a cheese factory, a winery and a tavern). They have created new opportunities for NPCs and workers (by continuing to have building projects). The bridge that is being repaired is being fixed in order to restore the flow of trade between Trisagia and Headwaters.

All in all, the only impact my players have had on the economy, that I can justify, is a positive one. Headwaters is growing because of it.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Saintly Saturday: St. Raphael of Brooklyn

Today is one of two recognized feast days for St. Raphael of Brooklyn, one of the most recently recognized Orthodox Christian saints (glorified in 2000). These two feast days are February 27 and the first Saturday of November (which places it shortly prior to Raphael's own patronal feast for the Archangels on November 8).

St. Raphael was born Rafla Hawaweeny in Beirut, Lebanon in 1860 where his parents had fled from Damascus in Syria due to religious persecution. In 1879 he was tonsured a monk. After receiving a theological education at the Theological School at Halki (in Turkey — which, by the way, has been shut down by Turkish authorities since 1971) where he was ordained to the deaconate in 1885. He then went to study at the Theological Academy in Kiev where he was ordained a priest in 1889. He was then invited to New York to become the pastor of the city's Syro-Arab Orthodox Christian community (which would later move to Brooklyn). He arrived in New York in November of 1895.

He would spent the rest of his life traveling the U.S. seeking out Orthodox Arabs to minister to them, and to gather them together. Before his death in 1915 he had established 30 parishes and had gathered together around 25,000 faithful. He was also involved in founding St. Tikhon's Orthodox Monastery (which is also now a seminary). In 1904 he was the first Orthodox Christian bishop ordained in North America.

Although St. Raphael is a fantastic example of the kind of wandering cleric one might expect in a D&D campaign (and even demonstrates how, in extreme situations, priests and bishops will wander far and wide), I am going to indulge in a little Gamer ADD. Given the relative modernity of St. Raphael, he provides a marvelous model for the wandering holy man in a wide range of setting and genre-based games.

Let me preface this by reminding folks that today Orthodox Christianity uses a version of the Divine Liturgy that was redacted by St. John Chrysostom in the 4th century using a version even earlier than that. Despite the radical changes that the world has gone through in the last sixteen centuries, Orthodox Christianity has stayed true to what has been passed down from generation to generation. This is not due to a reticence to change with the times, but rather out of an ability to make that which was passed down relevant to each successive age.

This is my way of pointing out that sixteen centuries from now, the Orthodox Church will still be with us and most likely will still be praying the same words St. John Chrysostom wrote sixteen hundred years ago and that we pray today. Therefore, any genre that hypothesizes a world based on our own ought to have a place for a St. Raphael — a wandering Christian missionary — even if it only ever remains a potentiality.

One of my pet peeves about the sci-fi genre (particularly in the last two decades or so) is that it not only ignores this potentiality, but actively tries to deny it. Despite surviving heresy and schism, Roman persecutions, Persian invasions, Muslim conquests, and Communist depravities, Christianity will somehow disappear in the face of modern science? Really?

It is for this reason that one of my all-time favorites in any medium of sci-fi is Firefly/Serenity. Joss Whedon is honest enough to make Christianity and Christian characters part of his story.

Indeed, Malcom Reynolds is a great simile for the modern American. Despite all his protestations to the contrary, Christianity forms the core of his principles and often explains why he makes the choices that he does.

St. Raphael himself personifies an archetype appropriate for such games as Boot Hill, Deadlands and Weird West. For another example from popular culture, let me highlight my favorite Gene Wilder movie, The Frisco Kid where he plays a rabbi trying to cross the country to minister to the Jewish Community in San Francisco.

This archetype is easily applicable to such hard sci-fi games as Traveller, Thousand Suns and Stars Without Number. Book from Firefly/Serenity is an excellent example.

Even in games that envision a world that destroyed itself (such as Gamma World), Christianity was part of that past and (through the power of the Holy Spirit) could have either survived or be part of a character's quest to recover.

In other words, my love of the cleric class goes far beyond the confines of D&D and its descendants and St. Raphael is my guide.

Friday, November 4, 2011

On Elven Clerics

One of the things that I adore about actually playing (as opposed to just thinking about playing) is that you are forced to consider things that would never occur to you otherwise. Living inside the bubble of intellectual exercise it is easy to be a purist, where your favorite ruleset perfectly meshes with your vision of the campaign world and the way you want the game to be played. Once you give up control and allow the messiness of an actual campaign, however, the intellectual exercise makes less and less sense.

As I mentioned in my last session report on Lost Colonies, some of my players have pooled a considerable amount of money in order to build a church in the elf lands — something that has never been done before. This comes on the tails of the party helping out the elves in dramatic fashion, all the while saying that their problems are better dealt with a dash of faith. A faith, by the way, that would be largely appealing to those elves of the Summer Court.

In the (in)famous verse Gen 1:28, God gives humanity dominion over all of creation:
Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the east, and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.
In Greek, the word translated as subdue has as its root kyrios, meaning lord. This is a title given to God — thus, God is commanding us to have a relationship with creation as He has. This view is reinforced when one looks at the Hebrew for the word translated as dominion. The literal meaning is to tread in a wine press. In other words, we are to be co-creators with God and we are to offer up our creative efforts to God. It is significant that verb has the visual image of the wine press — creating something that, by offering it to God, becomes the Blood of Christ. This kind of relationship with nature is right up the elves' alley.

Therefore, due entirely to play, am forced to consider something I have never before allowed in any game I have ever played — an elven cleric. Looking at the rules as written (AEC/1ed), elves can advance to 7th level and half-elves to 5th level. Personally, this doesn't make much sense to me. I can understand why an elf would be less likely to advance to higher levels using divine rather than arcane magic, but why are half-elves so much worse? If being a cleric is a human thing, how is it that a half-elf would be less inclined to divine magic than an elf, who is completely alien to humanity?

The AEC is more generous with potential fighter levels than 1ed. Elves can advance to 10th level (as opposed to 7th) and half-elves can go to 12th level (as opposed to 8th). I believe this discrepancy originates in the fact that the AEC operates in a system where race-as-class is an option. Therefore, going the multi-class route needs to be comparable to the race-as-class or there is no point in allowing the multi-class option in the first place.

This begs the question: why shouldn't elven clerics simply be a race-as-class that casts divine magic instead of arcane magic? While I really like this approach (being partial to race-as-class), I am not particularly comfortable with the idea of elves running around like super-paladins (despite the extra XP requirements, it would be awfully tempting to go with an elf over the cleric). It also removes some of the alien-ness of elves.

A more attractive option, taking a cue from Genesis 1:28, is to allow Istinite elves to cast Druid spells. This differentiates them from ordinary elves and maintains that alien-ness that I like to have with my demi-humans (especially since no one else would be casting druid spells).

One aspect of this that I find particularly interesting is that this will likely sour relationships between the Summer and Winter Courts. Whereas the Winter Court is all about cheating death, a Summer Court dominated by Istinite elves would be quite comfortable with death. What had been a rather cordial relationship (because all Summer Court elves knew they would one day be members of the Winter Court) could become downright hostile.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Lost Colonies Session 44

This session saw the first major battle of the campaign as the party took part in eradicating the undead horde that they unleashed upon the elf lands. Unfortunately, I am not familiar with any kind of macro-battle system that works to my liking (not that I have had any burning desire or need to look very hard) and my group wasn't very much into the idea of running a large scale battle against the ghouls. What to do?

We began the session with a review of the situation for those who had missed one or more sessions. I then let the players plan, interact with NPCs, answered any questions and provided guidance as to what was available to them in terms of troops, equipment and terrain. The plan that they came up with was actually quite ingenious.

Their objective was to lure the ghouls along some cliffs (a major geological feature of the area) and then pummel them from above using both elven archers and boulder-throwing cloud giants. Ground troops could then encircle to cut off escape and take care of any stragglers.

In such cases, what I try to do in order to make the players feel like they had a role in the larger picture without having to resort to playing out that bigger picture is to remove one or more major pieces of their desired outcome. It is then up to the players to get those pieces back on the board. In this case, their plan relied heavily on the presence of cloud giants. Therefore, the session involved the party making sure that those giants could make it to the battle.

It turned out that the reason that Yellow Face and his charmed ogres and half-giants were able to so easily overrun the castle of the cloud giant king was that there was a traitor inside and that it was grossly undermanned. When the king disappeared, he took his personal guard with him. On top of that, the traitor convinced the queen to send out search parties.

By interviewing Ornak the Half-giant, the party learned that the search party going north was likely wiped out by another tribe of half-giants led by another spell casting Yellow Face. This group was most likely going to arrive at the undermanned castle prior to the undead horde.

The party, therefore, had to defend the castle and find one or more of the remaining search parties in order to be able to have any cloud giants available for the final battle against the ghouls. To my players' credit, they did both with aplomb and careful planning. As a result, I ruled that the battle went off as planned, although Dn. Swibish was certain that their had been around 2000 ghouls when they unleashed the undead horde but he estimated that the battle saw the demise of only about 1800. The party assumed the missing ghouls were due to the efforts of the former Winter King, which he had promised to the Summer Court before mysteriously disappearing.

I have to admit that this whetted my appetite for more larger scale battles — especially since the party is getting up in level and therefore is beginning to think in terms of building strongholds (indeed, the session ended with Dn. Goram and Dn. Swibish pooling their resources to build the first church in the elf lands and to commission an illuminated text of scripture translated into elvish). At some point I am going to want to give the party the opportunity to head up armies and not just a handful of henchman and followers.

Thus, I will end with a series of questions:

Have you ever run a big battle in your campaign? If so, what system did you use and why? How'd it work out?

Monday, October 31, 2011

Meditating on Horror

It is Halloween and I have a confession to make. This is going to sound awfully strange coming from a guy who is such a big HPL fan, but I find supernatural horror really boring. Yep. Boring. As I grow older, the more annoying Halloween gets, because everybody gets all excited about something that I would rather not waste my time on (not to mention the fact that in the Orthodox Christian calendar, All Saints is celebrated the Sunday after Pentecost). Yet, here I am explaining myself:
The Lord asked Cain, 'Why are you angry and downcast? If you are doing right, surely you ought to hold your head high! But if you are not doing right, Sin is crouching at the door hungry to get you. You can still master him.' — Genesis 4:6-7
In the Hebrew, the word translated here as crouching is related to a Chaldean name for a demon that crouches in doorways waiting to devour its prey. Thus, the imagery of the language can be translated thusly:
There is a demon crouched ready to devour you, sin is the means by which you let him in. Despite this, you can still master him.
Sans Christ, in the immediate wake of The Fall, Cain had the power to overcome demons. With Christ and the power of His Cross, demons don't stand a chance. The only way a demon can possess a person or a house is if we let them. Therefore, when it comes to all this supernatural horror stuff, I have a very difficult time suspending my disbelief.

Therefore, it might surprise you that I have a reputation among several of my players of being one of the most successful Referees for bringing horror and terror to the game table. The secret is figuring out who the real monsters are.

The last time I was really scared at the movie theater was when I went to see Silence of the Lambs (which, by the way, demonstrates two truths: 1) I have three kids and have neither the time nor the budget to go see movies in the theater anymore and 2) the overall quality of movies in the last twenty years has so dramatical gone into the tank that Hollywood has utterly failed to make me miss going to the movie theater). Hannibal Lector is one of the truly terrifying movie monsters of all time, because he forces us to realize that we have seen the most horrific monster in the universe and it is us.

The best horror merely holds up a mirror. Whether or not intended, the work of HPL is a marvelous critique of secularism, atheism and scientism* because it holds up a mirror to the terrifying reality of a world without God. This terror and horror has been loosed upon the world every time atheism has been writ large upon a society, any society.

There is a reason why the big bad guys in my campaigns tend to be human. There is a reason why my monsters personify sin. There is a reason why RPGs and not movies are the best medium for telling horror tales — we must confront the horror of our own choices (and kick butt when we make the right ones).

*Scientism is the (false) belief that science is capable of answering questions that it is not designed to do — things more properly answered by philosophy and theology.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Saintly Saturday: St. Serapion of Zarzma

Today is the feast of St. Serapion of Zarzma, a 10th century saint who is primarily remembered by the Georgian Orthodox Church. He grew up as part of a wealthy family (his father was a Klarjeti aristocrat); however, this did not matter when both of his parents died when he was young. He and his brother were taken in by St. Michael of Parekhi, known as a wonderworker and a teacher of orphans.

St. Serapion became a priest, and, after St. Michael was instructed in a vision to send them, built a monastery with his brother in the village of Zarzma.

Though the life of St. Serapion is fairly simple — he spent his life building and maintaining a monastery — I find inspiration in where he built the monastery.

  • Firstly, there is this really cool map (which I found here):

  • Secondly, the regional name (Klarjeti) and the name of the village and monastery (Zarzma) just sound like they belong in a FRPG campaign world.
  • Finally, take a look at the Georgian (Mkhedruli) alphabet:

Personally, I am a big fan of puzzles, especially codes. When I find that any of my players share the same interest, I will sprinkle my dungeons with treasure maps, riddles and inscriptions written in ancient versions of known languages. Thus, I can write out whatever I want in plain English, substitute each letter with a cool looking symbol/rune/foreign character and then inform the players that they recognize one simple word (like 'the'). They then get to decode the message for themselves. Once a language code is broken, they get to go back to their original find and piece together any new messages they find. This is a great (and fun) way to simulate reading ancient texts. The Georgian (Mkhedruli) alphabet is a perfect candidate for such a use.

I'll end with a couple of questions:

  • Which language would you use the Georgian (Mkhedruli) alphabet to simulate?
  • Are there any other alphabets that you use to simulate FRPG languages in your campaign?