Saturday, June 29, 2013

Saintly Saturday: Sts. Peter and Paul

Today is the feast of Sts. Peter and Paul, paramount of the Apostles. Normally, I would write a brief summary of the life of these two great men; however, we know so much about them from the Gospels and from the letters that they have written to us, I find it difficult to write any kind of summary other than to invite everyone to re-read (or read for the first time) those very same letters that each man has left us.

Of all of these letters, the Orthodox Church reads a pericope from St. Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians. In it, he highlights the various ways that he has suffered for Christ:
Five times I have received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I have been beaten with rods; once I was stoned. Three times I have been shipwrecked; a night and a day I have been adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brethren; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure.
Though I do not even pretend to see these things in the same ballpark, I am reminded of the various and sundry ways that RPG players have shared our stories of the trials, tribulations and even deaths of our characters from all of the campaigns we have played through the years. I and others have often mused about the lethality of older editions of D&D (as well as a number of games that the OSR has spawned).

One might be tempted to ask, therefore, why would one even want to play a game in which character death seems almost inevitable? To answer that question, let me share with you the musings of St. John Chrysostom on the very pericope the Orthodox Church reads today:
For this is the brilliant victory, this is the Church’s trophy, thus is the Devil overthrown when we suffer injury. For when we suffer, he is taken captive; and himself suffers harm, when he would fain inflict it on us. And this happened in Paul’s case also; and the more he plied him with perils, the more was he defeated.
While most spectacularly understood in context of the lives of the apostles (who all, with the exception of St. John the Evangalist, were martyred), this quote of St. John Chrysostom does speak to one of the reasons why RPGs are so appealing — especially to me and especially the older editions of D&D and their clones.

Whether a metaphor for (Christian) Civilization vs. the (Demonic) Wilderness or humanity vs. death, RPGs allow us to stand in defiance of our own inevitable death. We get to die a thousand deaths, struggling to survive against all odds and have fun doing it.

To my mind, the reason that it is so much fun, despite the ever-present possibility that my character will come to some grisly end deep in the darkest part of the Wilderness or Underworld, is that the criteria of victory has nothing to do with anyone but we who play the game.

In the same way that Christ’s victory (His crucifixion) seems like foolishness to the world, what constitutes victory in an RPG is not written into any game mechanic, rule or even expectation. Victory is simply defined by how I, or anyone one who plays the game, wants to define victory. And sometimes, that even means a gloriously brutal death somewhere deep in the Wilderness or Underground.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Inquisitor Class for ACKS

Over the years, I have converted various campaign worlds to different systems. Every time, whether I like it or not, the mechanical assumptions of the system affect the world in question. For example, in converting Averoigne to ACKS and its system of Custom Classes and Proficiencies, it virtually eliminates the need for all of my musings on level titles.

There is also a much clearer distinction between divine and arcane magic than in Holmes. Given a world where the arcane magic is more naturally aligned with Chaos, where magic can affect large populations and where sin can manifest physically, there is an institutional need for some kind of check on everything arcane. Historically, France did participate in the Inquisition. While this institution (rightly) is held up as a blemish on the history of Christendom, there is a (potentially positive) place for it in Averoigne, where all of the above are true. Thus, my conversion of Averoigne to ACKS now includes the Inquisitor Class:

Inquisitor Class for ACKS

Prime Requisite: STR and WIS
Requirements: Must be Lawful
Hit Dice: 1d6
Maximum Level: 14
Inquisitors are monster hunters. Some are officials of the Salien Empire that hunt down and root out the Chaotic use of arcane magic, others are simply the faithful dedicated to ridding the world of evil magic and the creatures it spawns. In this quest they are able to use bows and flails/maces/hammers, wear chain mail or lighter armor and shield and use two fighting styles: weapon + shield and two-handed weapon. They also are able to cast divine magic and Turn as clerics of half their character level. In addition, they have the following Custom Powers:

  • Arcane Hunter Inquisitors are filled with zeal to destroy Chaotic magic creatures (which includes mages). They gain a +1 to attack rolls against these creatures. This increases to +2 at 7th level and +3 at 13th level.
  • Detect Power Inquisitors can detect spellcasters within 60' and estimate their level of power relative to their own. They can also tell when arcane magic has been used within the last 24 hours within the same vicinity. (The only way they sense whether an item is magic is if it has been used in the last 24 hours.) Each use takes a turn.
  • Perceive Intentions Inquisitors have spent a lifetime reading reactions of creatures they interact with, even if the creatures attempt to lie or conceal their reactions. Inquisitors always know the reaction roll (Hostile, Unfriendly, etc.) of creatures encountered as long as the creature’s CHA is not greater than the character’s WIS (the character will know these creatures are immune).
  • Detect Evil At 2nd level, an Inquisitor can detect evil (as the spell) up to 60' away simply by concentrating. Each use takes a turn.
  • Judgement At 4th level, the Inquisitor can pronounce judgement against another creature once per day. [This is the same as the Hex custom power].
  • Resistent At 9th level, an Inquisitor has been hunting monsters for so long, that they become resistant to various kinds of tribulations. They gain a +2 to all saves.[This is the same as the Divine Blessings custom power].

Inquisitor Proficiency List: Alertness, Battle Magic, Blind Fighting, Combat Trickery (force back, overrun, sunder), Command, Contemplation, Diplomacy, Eavesdropping, Endurance, Divine Health, Fighting Style, Goblin-slaying, Healing, Knowledge (history), Laying on Hands, Leadership, Loremastery, Martial Training, Precise Shooting, Profession (judge), Skirmishing, Quiet Magic, Righteous Turning, Tracking, Theology, Unflappable Casting, Weapon Focus, Wakefulness

Inquisitors fight and save as fighters and use the Castle rules to build a Stronghold at 9th level.

XP Progression looks like this:
  • Level 2: 2,350
  • Level 3: 4,700
  • Level 4: 9,400
  • Level 5: 18,800
  • Level 6: 37,600
  • Level 7: 75,200
  • Level 8: 150,400
  • Level 9: 270,400
  • Level 10: 390,400
  • Level 11: 510,400
  • Level 12: 630,400
  • Level 13: 750,400
  • Level 14: 870,400

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Saintly Saturday: The Prophet Amos

Today is the Feast of the Prophet Amos. According to the witness of the Book of Prophecy named after him, he was a shepherd, herdsman and a dresser of fig trees from the village of Thekoue, which was about 12 miles south of Jerusalem. Though an unlearned man, his were the first of the prophecies to be written down. This is likely due to the fact that he was the first to warn Israel that God was going to lift up His protective hand due to their stubborn unrepentance.

The opening lines of the Book of Amos refer to the reigns of Uzziah and Jeroboam, kings of Judah as well as an earthquake. Josephus recorded that there was a great earthquake that took place when Uzziah was king and afflicted with leprosy. The earthquake was so significant that Zechariah wrote about it 200 years later.

All of these historical references place the time when Amos was proclaiming his prophecies from about 795 B.C. to about 754 B.C. It is probable, therefore, that he was a contemporary of Jonah, Elisha, Isaiah and Micah. At the end of his career, he went to Bethel in the Northern Kingdom (Israel split into two kingdoms after the death of King Solomon, with Judah being the Southern Kingdom). There, the priests, led by Amasias, clubbed him to death because they tired of his warnings. Less than thirty years later, the Northern Kingdom was destroyed by the Assyrians.

For those interested in setting up a sandbox campaign, there is a lot of really interesting information that can be mined from the nine chapters found in the Book of Amos:

  • Damascus (also referred to as Bikath-Aven, which means Valley of Wickedness) is ruled by the House of Hazael. It is guarded by a great gate. The current ruler is Ben-Hadad who holds some kind of scepter as the sign of his office (is it some kind of powerful magic item or relic?). The palace is referred to as Beth-Eden (which means House of Pleasure). The people are called the Aram who originally are from Kir. They have recently conquered the city of Gilead.
  • Philistia has four major cities: Gaza, Ashdod, Ashkelon and Ekron. There was a fifth, but it was destroyed by the House of Hazael. There is another scepter in Ashkelon. They engage in a slave trade with Edom.
  • Tyre also engages in the slave trade, specifically those captured from Judah and the Northern Kingdom. This is a betrayal of an alliance made with Israel in the days of Solomon.
  • Edom (also called Teman) is a slavers kingdom. There are a number of palaces in the city of Bozrah (which suggests that there are several families which engage in the trade and have some kind of alliance or agreement on various slaving practices and trade routes).
  • Ammon is an ally of Damascus and took part in the sacking of Gilead where Ammonite troops took part in atrocities (it is recorded that they disemboweled pregnant women). They were paid for their part in the battle with more territory. The capital city is called Rabbah.
  • Moab is an enemy of Edom. They recently captured the king of Edom and burnt his bones (which, in the belief of the people of the region, would deny him happiness in the afterlife and, thus, is considered an act of extreme desecration). The major city is called Kerioth.
  • Israel (also called the Northern Kingdom) has a very wealthy and powerful aristocracy (there is reference to entire walls being carved from ivory). This wealth comes on the back of a desperately poor and oppressed peasantry. The major city is Bethel. They have abandoned the worship of God in favor of Sakkuth (who might be associated with Saturn) and Kaiwan who is associated with stars. This suggests that the priests of Bethel are astrologers. Bersheeba, a renowned shrine used by the patriarchs, can be found in the southern part of the kingdom.
  • Judah (also called the Southern Kingdom) is ruled over by the leper king Uzziah. Though more faithful to God than Israel, the worship of idols is widespread.

For the purposes of utilizing all of this for a typical FRPG campaign, one can say that the massive earthquake mentioned in the Books of Amos and Zechariah as well as by Josephus created a massive chasm in the earth within spitting distance of the PCs base of operations (whether that be in the Northern or Southern Kingdom). Vile creatures have been pouring forth from this chasm, raiding and pillaging.

Thus, there is a source for monstrous creatures, a dungeon complex in which can be found treasure close to the PCs base of operations  and a rich political tapestry that forms a bunch of background noise that PCs can take advantage of at higher levels.

For myself, I would be tempted to dip my toe into re-imaging the Slave Pits again, especially with the new release of Against the Slave Lords due out this week with the new introductory adventure Danger at Darkshelf Quarry. A quarry can easily be re-imagined as a chasm and Edom would fill the role of the Slave Lords very nicely, especially if one of the families was delving into a market that it wanted kept secret from the other families.

For other ideas to fill out an Amos-inspired sandbox, check out some of my other posts on OT prophets here, here and here.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Saintly Saturday: Icon of the Mother of God of White Lake

Today is the Feast of the Icon of the Mother of God of White Lake. This particular icon belonged to St. Cyril of White Lake, a hermit who began his monastic career at the Siminov Monastery in Moscow at the end of the 14th century. While doing an Akathist in his cell in front of the Icon he heard a voice: Go to White Lake, where I have prepared a place for you. He then received a vision of the place he was to go.

He left the monastery and went to White Lake, to the place he saw in his vision. There he set up a cross and dug a cell in the ground near Mount Myaura in the Vologda region of Russia.

This sounds like a great location-based encounter area:

Near White Lake (or another appropriate body of water) there is a large wooden cross. Next to it is a man-made cave. Inside are the remains of a long-dead man laying in front of an icon carved into the rock. When someone prays in front of the icon seeking the location of an object, person or place, the supplicant will receive a vision of the immediate area where that object, person or place can be found.

If the PCs show the proper respect to the body, the hermit saint that carved the icon and lived in the cave will grant them a boon (like re-roll one saving throw and take the better of the two rolls).

Alternatively, the hermit could still be alive and well. I would personally play him as a curmudgeonly fool-for-Christ, quite able to tell the PCs all kinds of interesting things if they are willing to get past the scathing criticism that flies from his mouth.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Turning Reskinned

Let me start by saying that this post will fly in the face of today’s perceived dichotomy between Christianity and science; however, as I have stated many times, this is a false dichotomy. Not only have Church Fathers throughout the ages supported scientific study and a cultivation of the mind, but modern science and the scientific method are children of the Christian world view — one needs the orderly universe created by the Trinitarian God that is not full of divine beings in order to believe that it can be predictable and reliable enough to observe and test.

It is only when one tries to answer such questions as Who is God? and What is the meaning of life? with science that one runs into a conflict. Such questions are rightly left to theology because science cannot answer them without abandoning the scientific method and becoming a faith unto itself.

With that preamble, let me call your attention to this video, which is rare footage of an oarfish in the wild (fast forward to about the 3:30 mark to get a good look):

Although this deep water fish looks tiny in the video, the reality is that these fish can be anywhere from 15-56 feet long. Therefore, it has been hypothesized that the oarfish is the source of various sea serpent stories from times of yore. As can be seen from the video, the reality is much less frightening than humanity’s ability to imagine the monstrous.

This got me thinking about a way to re-skin the concept of Turning. While the origin of the mechanic is the image of Van Helsing keeping Dracula at bay with a cross, another way of understanding the mechanic is akin to the video above — stripping away the monstrous imagining of humanity to reveal the mundane reality.

I come to this from the perspective of both the classic D&D trope of the (Chaotic) Wilderness vs. (Lawful) Civilization as well as the idea that monsters are sin personified. In a world where sin becomes manifest as all the dark imaginings of humanity from myth and story, the Christian (as the champion of Lawful Civilization) becomes the mechanism by which the Chaotic Wilderness is tamed by revealing the mundane by stripping away the demonic.

Thus, when a party encounters a group of zombies which are successfully Turned by the party’s cleric, the supposed undead (rather than running away) are revealed to merely be dead bodies, carvings on a wall or an unusual shadow cast by torch light; however, lower level clerics are unable to completely convince or control the dark and fallen imagination of either themselves or their party members. Thus, the zombies will eventually return until such time that the cleric can “destroy” them by having faith in the God who declared His creation very good.

The cleric, in other words, becomes the video camera that reveals that ancient seas serpents are actually oarfish.

One interesting consequence of this re-skinning is the possibility with such a set-up that the Mythic Underground and the Dungeon-as-semi-intelligent-NPC are actually creations of our own making — manifestations of our own sins and fears.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

What Should a Blue Mage be for ACKS?

I have to admit, I am still struggling with the concept of the Blue Mage for the ACKS conversion of my Averoigne campaign. My Preference would be to do a kind of elemental mage that specializes in water magic (thus the moniker blue); however, there aren’t a lot of elemental/water-type of Custom Powers. There are, however, several options for creating an Illusionist-type mage, which could be a stand-in for the blue moniker (referring to the type of aura their magics give off when detected?).

Thus, I have three concepts that I would like to float and get a general reaction to (with an emphasis on which of the following would you prefer to play):

Option One: Water Elemental Specialist

Blue Mages focus on the self discipline of water elemental magic. As a result, they only cast arcane magic at 2/3 of their level (slower spell progression); however, spells using the water element do an extra +1 to each Hit Die. Blue mages can also do minor magic research on water elemental spells at 5th (all others at 7th) and major magic research at 11th (all others at 13th). Their study with water elemental magic begins with a mastery of the movement of water within their own body. This control has two effects:

  • A blue mage is better at fighting than other mages, fighting with the same progression as a cleric. Though, like other mages, they cannot use armor, they are able to use daggers, pole arms, short bows, spears and staffs.
  • The blue mage has a natural +2 to AC and may reduce non-magical damage by 1 point per die. This increases to +4 AC and 2 points per die at 7th level and +6 AC and 3 points per die at 13th level. These bonuses stack with rings of protection and similar effects. Attacks from monsters of 5HD or more are considered magical. [This is the same as the Flesh Runes custom power.]

XP necessary for 2nd level would be 2375.

Option Two: Illusionist via Custom Powers

This concept follows the template of the brown and white mages. They cast at 2/3 of their level (slower spell progression); however, they are Masters of Illusion.Targets of their illusion spells are at a -2 to the save. Blue mages can also do minor magic research on illusion spells at 5th (all others at 7th) and major magic research at 11th (all others at 13th). In addition, they gain several Custom Powers:

  • At 1st level, a blue mage can blend into any environment. They always receive at least a 12+ proficiency roll to hide. [Same as wearing an elven cloak.]
  • At 3rd level, a blue mage can cast Ventriliquism at will.
  • At 5th level, a blue mage never quite appears exactly where they actually are. Therefore, they gain +2 to all saves. [Same as Divine Blessing custom power.]
  • At 7th level, a blue mage can cast the Alter Self spell once per 8 hours. [Alter Shape custom power.]

XP necessary for 2nd level would be 2075.

Option Three: Borrow Spells from the AEC

This option uses the same basic rules as a regular mage with the following alterations:

  • The arcane spell list is switched out with the Illusionist spell list from the AEC for Labrynith Lord.
  • By giving up the Two-handed fighting style, they gain the custom power Innate Illusion Mastery. Thus, targets of illusions are at -2 to save and illusion spell research happens as if 2 levels higher (which, could be interpreted to mean that minor magic research can start at 3rd level). 

As with grey mages, this version of blue mage would be required by law to belong to the Mages Guild and would be closely monitored.

So, which option would you rather play?

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Saintly Saturday: St. Justin the Philosopher

Today is the feast day of a saint with whom I feel a very deep connection, because we both came to faith in Christ from a similar place. St. Justin the Philosopher and Martyr was born in Palestine to Greek parents. He travelled the world learning the great philosophies of his age, seeking the philosophy of philosophies. After witnessing the martyrdom of some Christians, he was moved to find out about what would fill someone with so much faith, strength and resolve.

When he encountered the teaching of the Church, he found what he was looking for. He donned (or continued to don) the philosopher’s robe and became a teacher of what he understood to be the philosophy of philosophies. He would go on to write several very important works, the most famous of which are his First and Second Apologies as well as the Dialogue with Trypho. All three were written in the middle of the second century A.D. and are therefore witnesses to how the ancient Church interpreted Scripture and what the liturgy of the ancient Church looked like.

Ironically, his martyrdom came at the hands of two philosophers. He had a professional rivalry with Crescens the Cynic, who the martyr predicted would use Christianity as an excuse to have the saint killed. When this prediction came to fruition, St. Justin was turned over to the forces of Emperor Marcus Aurelius (A.D. 161-180) — a Stoic philosopher who argued that the ideal society should be lead by philosopher kings such as himself.

St. Justin was martyred in Rome.

One of the arguments that St. Justin makes in his First Apology is relevant to a way of marrying the Christian world view with the Sword & Sorcery pulp roots of D&D:
For the truth shall be spoken; since of old these evil demons, effecting apparitions of themselves, both defiled women and corrupted boys, and showed such fearful sights to men, that those who did not use their reason in judging of the actions that were done, were struck with terror; and being carried away by fear, and not knowing that these were demons, they called them gods, and gave to each the name which each of the demons chose for himself.
St. Justin is playing with the Greek word δαίμων which, to the pagan mind, means god and to the Christian mind refers to fallen angels, aka demons. St. Justin later demonstrates the irony of seeing it a good thing to be an imitator of a δαίμων:
But far be such a thought concerning the gods from every well-conditioned soul, as to believe that Jupiter himself, the governor and creator of all things, was both a parricide and the son of a parricide, and that being overcome by the love of base and shameful pleasures, he came in to Ganymede and those many women whom he had violated and that his sons did like actions. But, as we said above, wicked demons perpetrated these things.
Thus, all the pagan gods one might find in a typical S&S-inspired D&D campaign are, from the view-point of St. Justin, demons. Ironically, given the history of the game and the Satanist-scare of the eighties, Supplement IV: Gods, Demi-Gods & Heroes and Deities and Demigods (especially in its original edition with the Cthuhu Mythos) actually support St. Justin’s view.

Demons and Devils have stats — Hit Dice, Armor Class, etc. This makes them monsters that PCs can hunt down and defeat. Both Supplement IV: Gods, Demi-Gods & Heroes and Deities and Demigods give various pantheons of pagan gods stats — Hit Dice, Armor Class, etc. equating them with demons and devils — monsters that PCs can hunt down and destroy.

In terms of arcane vs. divine magic and clerics of various pagan cults, ACKS actually gives a very potent answer. In the ACKS Players Companion, it is possible to trade out Turning for other custom powers. Thus, it is possible to create a plethora of different classes to reflect various pagan cults with their own spell lists. For those who take issue with the idea of these various classes having effective spells, remember that the Egyptian priests from Exodus were able to duplicate some of the miracles performed through Moses. This suggests that while there is some cross-over, there are powers that should belong to Christians (or Pseudo-Christians) alone.

The easiest is the aforementioned Turning. Thus, the original cleric class gets to be what it originally was: Christian or Pseudo-Christian. It also gives homage to Holmes who stated:
All vampires, regardless of religious background, are affected by the cross which is sovereign against them.
The cool part (at least for those of us who play older rulesets) is that since ACKS is based upon B/X, any class created with ACKS Players Companion can be easily ported to any other older ruleset with little to no conversion.

Thus, one can maintain the S&S pulp feel that inspired D&D with all of its mysterious cults, magic and (to pay homage to St. Justin) δαίμων worship, while still leaving room for a Christian (or anyone else who wants to come along) to hunt down and defeat all those demons and devils.