Saturday, March 28, 2015

Saintly Saturday: St. Hilarion the New

Today is the Feast of St. Hilarion the New. He was a monastic saint who lived much of his life as a hermit. Eventually, he was ordained as a priest and became the abbot of the Pelekete monastery in Bithynia during the eighth century A.D. This places his life at the time of the first wave of iconoclasm.

On Holy Thursday in A.D. 754, soldiers stormed the monastery under the auspices of rooting out icon-venerators. They disrupted service, threw the Holy Gifts to the floor and put forty-two of the monks in chains. They were then sent to Edessa to be murdered. The remaining monks were horribly mutilated and tortured. Noses were cut off, beards set on fire. St. Hilarion died during this persecution and is today venerated as a martyr.


Given that several of my recent Saintly Saturdays have coincidentally been about various saints from around the Sea of Marmara and Bithyina, it seems as if this nascent campaign is going to get further developed.

The story of St. Hilarion and the Pelekete monastery suggests a background story for the center-piece dungeon of the campaign. In past posts, I have suggested a new take on the sample side-view dungeon in Holmes where Skull Mountain becomes the Mountain of Skulls. The monks originally built the monastery to protect the surrounding countryside from an ancient evil buried beneath.

I have also suggested that the monks therein were not wiped out by monsters, but by forces of Law. These forces would have been backed by an authority that is actively supporting a heresy that the monks at the Mountain of Skulls were opposed to (and might possibly be the original rebel monks also suggested by a previous post).

To that end, I’d like to gather some pictures from a few monasteries for the purposes of inspiration. Somewhere in here are the pieces necessary to bring this adventure location to life:

Especially interesting to me are the skulls with names, dates and even icons painted upon them. These are the skulls in question that need to be found and restored to make sure that the ancient evil is once more contained.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

On Vitriol Part 4

My last post on this topic elicited this response from JB over at B/X Blackrazor:
I haven't thought too much about the relationships that this corner o the blog-o-sphere creates, but I think you're right...the interaction that takes place within "blog space" is just as important (if not more so) than in having a pulpit from which to shout our ideas. And with that in mind, it certainly does behoove us to "just get along" and rise above the petty squabbles.

I say that...but then there are folks that I've simply divorced myself from who might otherwise be part of my communal community. Folks who have beliefs that I can't (in good conscious) support, and who I don't want to publicize...not by talking about them, not by creating links from my blog. For me, these are folks who have consistently put out really hateful shit (NOT "game related"), and while we may share a love of gaming (regardless of system or edition), they're beliefs are such that I don't find "value added" by including them in the conversation.

Is that un-Christian of me?

This is a very important question that needs its own post.

Let me begin by saying that when James Raggi of Lamentations of the Flaming Princess made the business decision to start using graphic images and nudity in both his products and his blog banner, I removed his link from my own blog. I also did not purchase the Grindhouse Edition of LotFP because of that artwork.

At the time, I explained that I disagreed with his choice. Personally, I think the artwork that has real staying power is that that which does not titillate. I also have two daughters and I certainly did not feel comfortable linking to or looking at a website or reading game material with those images when my girls are often in the same room when I am using my computer or looking at my games.

However, one of the purposes of relationship is to follow the command of Christ to love — not just your neighbor who looks and thinks like you, but the radical other and your enemy.

One could quote Matthew 7:6, “Never give what is holy to dogs or throw your pearls before pigs. Otherwise, they will trample them with their feet and then turn around and attack you.” But this is specifically in context of preaching the Gospel — holy things. This does not excuse completely cutting off a relationship.

This is where it is very important to understand two axioms that are commonly forgotten in an era where the rational mind is overemphasized:

  • Emotions are not Ideas
  • Ideas are not People

When confronted by an idea that elicits a negative emotional response, we often reject the idea as bad because of that emotional response. Therefore, we often mistake a negative emotional response as an idea and therefore a legitimate argument. Thus, one might be tempted to say that James Raggi is wrong for using the artwork he does because it makes me feel uncomfortable.

Emotional responses, however, are not a legitimate counter-argument against ideas. For example, Raggi’s business model has been successful. Therefore his idea has some merit (at least in terms of using that artwork as a tool for selling his product). For a less controversial example, Gallileo’s hypothesis of the sun being the center of the solar system probably created a lot of negative emotional responses. I hope we all realize how illegitimate those emotions are for arguing against the make-up of the solar system.

We also like to use all kinds of labels in order to categorize things and people into easily digestible nuggets of information: Democrat, Liberal, Progressive, Conservative, Tea Party, Libertarian, Fascist, Nazi, Communist, etc. The vast majority of these labels encompass an idea or a set of ideas. We cannot make the mistake, however, of confusing that idea with a person.

Let me give you two examples:

St. Justin Martyr was a millennialist. This is a belief that Christ will reign for a thousand years on earth after His second coming. This was rejected by the Church. Yet, Justin is still revered as a saint. Thus, St. Justin is more than merely a millennialist — more than just an idea.

I have a painting hanging next to my computer by a man who volunteered to fight with the Nazis against the Soviet Union. I could very easily dismiss him and his art because he is a Nazi-sympathizer. To do so, however, would ignore and miss out on a great story, a good man and a great artist. He was an Estonian national who saw the Nazis as liberators and ended up having to flee his homeland until after the fall of the Soviet Union.

I use these illustrations to point out that it is not only possible to have relationships with people who hold to ideas we disagree with, but to have fruitful relationships. Thus, if we dismiss people because they are associated with an idea, or are labelled because they hold to that idea, we are doing ourselves and them a disservice for not looking beyond that idea to find common ground, to find relationship, to find something worth while and fruitful.

Thus, my answer to JB is this:

Is it okay to have a negative emotional response? Absolutely.
Is it okay to give yourself space in order to minimize the occurrence of those negative emotions? Yes.
Is it okay to cut off any possible interaction or relationship with the person who is the source of those negative emotions? I am inclined to say no, with a caveat. I’ve dealt with enough domestic violence to know that severing all contact can be the only really healthy solution; however, I want to challenge everybody who has encountered what generally gets labelled as HATE on the internet:

Go back and look at it again. Wrestle with it. Does your problem with the person stem from ideas or emotional responses? If it is from emotional responses, why are you or they having those responses? This is a really important question, because emotions need to be dealt with in a fundamentally different manner than ideas.

Here is another axiom that I find really useful when dealing with people of all stripes in any situation: if you are involved in an argument, especially when there is a strong emotional response, it is your fault. I will grant that the other party has also contributed to the damage, but the only person you have control over is you. In order to get past that argument and to move beyond that emotional response you need to take responsibility for what you did in order to contribute to the situation — even if that contribution was .0001% of the problem.

At the very least, you can be confident that you have left the door open and done what you needed to do to help the other party — even if they never decide to go through that door.

It also gives us the ability to say: the manner in which you expressed that idea made me feel [insert emotion here]. If you don’t want me or others to feel that way, please express yourself differently. As to the merits of the idea itself…

I will grant that this is not a foolproof method. Again, the only person you can control is yourself; however, it is an approach that helps differentiate emotions and ideas so that both can be dealt with in an appropriate manner. In the end, even if the people with whom we disagree or have strong emotional responses toward never change, we have at the very least given them the opportunity.

From personal experience, the gift of that opportunity has resulted in far more fruit than I ever considered possible.

Saintly Saturday: St. James the Confessor

Today is the Feast of St. James the Confessor. He entered the monastic life at a young age, living at the Studite monastery in Constantinople. He was then made bishop of Catania in Sicily. His bishopric took place during the first wave of Iconoclasm in the middle of the 8th century. While emperor Constantine V Copronymos (A.D. 741-775) was on the thrown, St. James was imprisoned for venerating the icons. Thus, he received the title Confessor. Eventually, his tormentors gave up trying to get St. James to abandon his defense of the icons and sent him into exile where he died.

Whereas I have reflected quite a lot on heresies, iconoclasm and confessors I don’t think I’ve ever talked about exile. One of the interesting practices of the Roman Empire (by which I mean the one with Constantinople as its capital) was the use of exile. Both heterodox and orthodox emperors would send their religious opponents into exile either on the fringes of empire or out into barbarian lands. This seems to suggest a really interesting twist on the classic Keep on the Borderland trope.

Part of the makeup of the Keep is this concept of exile, which can take any number of forms:

  • The PCs belong to an exiled group (whether political, racial or religious). The powers that control the Keep represent those who exiled the PCs. They are free to venture into the wilderness, but not go back to civilization. This would put some serious dampers on help at a party’s home base. It would also begin to get dangerous once they started accumulating wealth and magic items.
  • The entire Keep is controlled by an exiled group of which the PCs may or may not be. This variation would play close to the typical trope, except that higher-priced items would be more rare and their would be even more emphasis on clearing new land. The big change would be the end-game, where the powers that exiled those at the Keep would be more likely to meddle in the affairs of players once they started building strongholds.
  • One of the patrons of the PCs is in exile. This could either be open knowledge, done in secret or kept secret from the players. The patron is trying to accumulate enough power in order to return home. This could get complicated in the same way the first two options do. This option offers another hitch if the players do not realize that the guy they have been helping is actually a secret go-between and they are now accomplices in helping a traitor/heretic/poltical troublemaker start up another civil war, etc.
  • The PCs are part of a group whose mission is to inform on a group of exiles. Thus, they are set-up as adventurers for hire in an area dominated by an exiled power. They are then to get info from their employers and report back to the powers that be. My favorite twist on this set-up is when the PCs realize that those they have been sent to spy on are really the good guys.

One of my favorite treasures of all-time that a character of mine ever came across was a history book that detailed the royal lineage of an empire within the campaign world. My character’s desire to use that information to start a civil war never materialized (my character was a former slave in that empire, but my GM and fellow players weren’t ready to go there), but this is the kind of treasure that could be the centerpiece of a Keep-on the-Borderland-in-Exile. The information contained therein could inspire all kinds of mischief by players, whatever variation the “exiled” part of the trope is extant in the campaign.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Happy St. Cuthbert's Day

Today is the Feast of St. Cuthbert, who has been a part of this hobby since the 1970's. Here is a link with which to peruse the various thoughts I've had through the years about St. Cuthbert and the games we play. Enjoy.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

On Vitriol Part 3

I have spilled a lot of virtual ink in my last two posts trying to point out the limitations of reason and logic and arriving at some kind of appreciation for and understanding of the nous — that part of the human mind that experiences beauty. The reason for this is that it is my answer to all of the vitriol we see flying through the interwebs.

The nous is not only where we experience beauty, it is also where we experience relationships. There is nothing particularly rational about why I have the friends that I do, or why I love my wife or why my children are some of the most important people in my life. They just are in the same way that beauty just is.

The irrationality of relationships is what makes them so critically important. If they were rational, most of us wouldn’t have many friends, nor would the human race have much of a chance at having enough kids for the species to survive more than a few generations.

Relationships have a way of existing despite the fact that we disagree on so many things. Just as an example: I am an Orthodox Christian. The vast majority of those who read this blog are not. Indeed, I would venture to guess that the average reader isn’t even Christian. Yet, here we are. We all have a relationship playing the games we love to play.

Ultimately, this reality forces us all to engage that rational and logical part of our mind to understand why we have these relationships and how it is possible that someone else who can be be called a colleague or even friend can so radically disagree with us on a variety of subjects. It is within this space, where the nous and the rational mind work together that understanding those who disagree with us happens. It is in this space where minds are changed and transformed.

Again, for example: I don’t like Thieves or Paladins. Thieves tend to lead to skill systems which I don’t care for. Clerics are paladins, why do they need a separate class that doesn’t do as good a job of being a paladin as the cleric does? Yet, my Lost Colonies campaign had both paladins and thieves because the friends that I made while playing the game do like thieves and paladins. I found myself asking the question: what is more important? The mechanics of the game we play or the relationships I have around the table? In answering that question, I found a way to include those paladins and thieves.

One of the reasons why I have been blogging as long as I have is because this corner of the internet has been focused so much on relationships. We play games we love to play. We love tinkering with those games. We love sharing ideas about those games. All of these things rise above all of our differences. The OSR exists despite the fact that we disagree more than we agree. Whether we know it or not we have been occupying that space in the human experience where the rational mind and nous cooperate. As a result this hobby has been transformed.

Vitriol exists when we forget the nous and abandon the possibility of relationship. I will grant that there are times when it is warranted, but the vast majority is wholly avoidable and we’ve proved it for years.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

On Vitriol Part 2

One of the reasons that human secularism has become normative is the belief that such a system is rational and logical. Indeed, I argued many times in my life that both atheism and human secularism are more rational and logical than any form of theism. I am confident that today many atheists and human secularists would agree.

This shouldn’t be very surprising given that we are so dependent upon science and technology; however, I would point out the fact that reason and logic only make up part of the human mind. Although the Greek word nous is translated into English as mind, it does not refer to rational thought, reason or logic. The best way that the concept of the nous can be exemplified is with the idea of beauty.

No one can deny that human beings find beauty in the world. Indeed, we manage to find it in the most remarkable places. Beauty, however, is not rational. There is no hypothesis of beauty that can be tested in a repeatable fashion. There is no rational reason why I prefer German opera and my wife prefers Italian opera. There is no logical explanation why we, as human beings, experience beauty when we encounter it. Yet we do.

The part of the human mind wherein beauty happens is the nous. To dismiss or minimize this aspect of the human mind is to dismiss art, culture and and a huge chunk of human experience. Yet, that is exactly what we do when we insist that every aspect of our lives be ruled by reason and logic.

As the saying goes, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. No amount of evidence or rational thought or argument or logic is going to change the fact that I like this cover of T1: The Village of Hommlet:

better than this one:

Sure, I could rationalize it by pointing out my first exposure to the module was the later printing with Jeff Dee’s illustration, or that I really want to play the halfling fighter as a PC one day. At the end of the day, however, I just find it beautiful. It just is.

This reality can be expanded to the entire hobby. Some gamers prefer the style of play offered by 3.5 and Pathfinder. That game is beautiful to them. I prefer the simplicity of B/X and Labyrinth Lord. They are beautiful to me. Sure, a lot of virtual ink has been spilled justifying and rationalizing that beauty; however, there is no rational or logical explanation as to why we find the games we play to be so beautiful, so fun, and so endlessly entertaining.

While I could expend a tremendous amount of time and energy explaining why all of those people who find beauty in 3.5 and Pathfinder are wrong, pointing out all of the rationalizations and justifications that prove how much I am right to find beauty in B/X and LL (and you can probably find posts on this blog that do exactly that), the reality is that I can no more prove that someone who enjoys Pathfinder doesn’t enjoy it than I can prove that red is really green.

That’s because the reasons we play these games really has little to do with rational mind, but everything to do with the nous.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

On Vitriol Part 1

So, while I was away from active blogging, I got to miss a whole lot of vitriol about gender politics in gaming, a fact which I am actually kind of relieved about. Unfortunately, it is a subject that will not go away. Last week both wundergeek and Zak S. launched salvos at each other, both in the name of defending themselves from the other.

While gender politics are a hot button issue that repeatedly finds people from all sides being attacked, this situation is by no means unique because attacks against various people and groups are a regular feature on the internet.

I highlight wundergeek and Zak S. because this situation was/is rather high profile in our corner of the internet and because I don’t particularly agree with either of them. I may very well be wrong, but neither seems to think much of Christianity and I have the distinct impression that if push came to shove they would each probably describe themselves as human secularists or even atheists. I say this not as an attack on either of them, but rather out of personal experience.

I sympathize with both of them tremendously. I believe that ideas are important. I hold that human reason has been, is and will be capable of wondrous and amazing things.

They both look and sound like I did when I could proudly claim that I was an atheist and a human secularist.

Therefore, in order to really speak on the situation (and all of the various attacks that so many of us who inhabit the internet have to deal with in some way fashion or form), I need to discuss why I am no longer an atheist and human secularist and why that is so important.

This story begins in Eastern Europe.

Back when Yugoslavia still existed and was embroiled in a civil war, I lived within a stone’s throw away from the border. Thus, I was a peripheral witness to what was going on there. I heard gunshots. I felt shockwaves as bombs were dropped. I saw MiGs violate airspace. I was actively propagandized by the Croatians. I met and befriended Serbian refugees. I saw things I wouldn’t wish on anyone — things that I cannot un-see.

This experience broke me. I found myself reexamining my entire life. Rather than breaking down the logic of theism (as I had spent so many years of my life doing), I look a good, long look at atheism and human secularism. To my horror, I found it lacking.

If there is no God, what is good, ethical, moral or truth? Rather, what is the source of what is good, ethical, moral or truth? While laws, constitutions and/or societal norms might help us define these things, they are not the source. Laws, constitutions and societal norms all come from us — human beings. Therefore, sans God, we are the measure of what is good, ethical, moral and truth. Given this, what makes what I believe to be good, ethical, moral or truth any better than someone else’s? By what justification can I say that Hitler was wrong?

One might be tempted to point to logic, reason and/or science. These are things that Western society has, for some time, agreed are beneficial to help us come to a consensus as to what is good, ethical, moral or truth; however, in a world sans God, logic, reason and science had nothing to do with Hitler being wrong. Although we may try to convince ourselves otherwise, the real reason that Hitler was wrong in a world without God is that the allies were able to marshall enough military strength to force and coerce the Germans into their version of what is good, ethical, moral and truth. Had Hilter won, his version would be the norm.

Without God and with human beings as the source of what is good, ethical, moral and truth, the only criteria that matters when it come to who is correct or not is force. He or she who is the most willing to coerce with force their version of what is good, ethical, moral and truth wins. There is no external, eternal measure by which to justify how Might Makes Right isn’t correct.

Thus, as our society becomes more and more convinced that God is passe, and that human secularism is accepted as normative we can expect the kind of vitriol that has wundergeek and Zak S. at each other’s virtual throats. While wundergeek and Zak S. have diligently defended themselves by pointing to a variety of examples of what they actually have said and actually believe, it doesn’t matter in a world dominated by human secularism. What does matter in a world without God is that whoever is going to win this fight is the one who is willing to use any and all means of coercion in order to force their world view on the rest of us.

In other words, in a world without God, goodness, ethics, morality and truth mean nothing.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

OKW: Half-orcs

This post is going to be a bit convoluted, but bear with me it will eventually make sense.

One of the major challenges of doing a campaign in OKW Cezavy (at least as I have conceived it) is that Thyatis isn’t really available as a source of ancient ruins. In my normal background scheme of Ancient, Old and Present, the Thyatis Empire really only becomes relevant in the present, even though it no longer exists.

Thus, in order to make any kind of dungeon-delve interesting via a multi-layered backstory (especially a center-piece dungeon), I’ve had to wrack my brain for other possible ancient civilizations that could litter the high steppes of Cezavy with ruins. Again, I have to credit Matt Lynch and his Tome of Adventure Design, because rolling on the various random tables found there-in gave me a very interesting idea with several ramifications for the campaign.

Since it is already established that Tharks roam the southwestern regions of the OKW, I figure that it is plausible that other barsoomian races happened to find their way to the OKW as well. My first choice would be the Lotharians due to their decadence and mental powers. This decadence would have lead to their downfall and possible extinction.

It also introduces the possibility that the various ruins that dot the Cezavy landscape have incubators and other reproductive devices, since all the various humanoid races of barsoom reproduce by laying eggs. This also allows me to put a twist on the reproductive antics of the Quastogs. According to Lawrence Schick, the Quastogs suffer from a curse that results in a very high rate of still births. This necessitates raids far and wide of other races to kidnap children to bolster their ranks.

Given the amount of risk and effort such an endeavor would entail, I postulate that the Quastogs would leap at other reproductive options. One of these could very well be a birthing chamber used by the Lotharians before they passed into the mists of forgotten history. The problem with using such a device is that orcs are not egg layers like the Lotharians. Thus, their use of the device tends to end in various mutations; however, these are successful births and the mutation rate is far less than the stillbirth rate.

Mutations, however, are still seen as a stigma and most are culled in infancy. Some do survive, however. Either rescued by their mothers (who may have been kidnapped in their youth) or their mutation didn’t manifest until they were able to escape on their own, these “half-orcs” can occasionally be found on the fringes of Cezavy civilization.

In order to represent the various mutations exhibited by these half-orcs, I decided to take the Replicant class from Mutant Future and run it through the custom class creation system found in the ACKS Players Companion. Here is what I came up with:


Prime Requisite: STR
Hit Dice: 1d6
Damage Die: 1d8
Maximum Level: 14

Half-orcs are the mutated off-spring of the Quastog orc clans. Rejected by their own people, they live on the fringes of civilization.

Upon creation, the player rolls on the following table until three mutations (or the equivalent) are rolled. Duplicates may be re-rolled or stacked, depending upon player/Referee desire. The mutations are expressed as a mechanic. An example of how that mechanic might be expressed in game play is given; however, players are encouraged to create their own “special effect” for each mutation, thus making their character unique.

Mutations (d20):

  1. Cast Scare 1/8hrs (Xenomorphism)
  2. All saving throws at +2 (Extra Organs)
  3. Cast Invisible 1/hr takes 1 turn to cast (Chameleon Epidermis)
  4. Equivalent of Infravision: 30’ (counts as 1 mutation); 60’ (counts as 2 mutations) (Echolocation/Nightvision/Thermal Vision/Ultraviolet Vision)
  5. Lay on Hands — heal 2hp per experience level once per day (Epidermal Photosynthesis)
  6. +1 damage w/TH weapons; may use w/shield (Gigantism)
  7. +1 surprise and initiative (Prehensile Tail)
  8. 1d2-1/1d2-1/1d4-1 (counts as 2 mutations); 1d3-1/1d3-1/1d6-1 (counts as 3 mutations) (Spiny Growth/Natural Weapon)
  9. Flesh Runes — When not wearing armor, the character receives +2 AC and reduces damage from non-magical attacks by 1 hp per die; this increases to +4 AC and 2hp per die at 7th level and +6 AC and 3 hp per die at 13th level; damage from creatures of 5HD or more are considered magical attacks (counts as 3 mutations) (Energy Retaining Cell Structure)
  10. Glamorous Aura — +2 to reaction rolls to impress and/or intimidate; if the result is 12+ the subject acts as if charmed (Fragrance Development)
  11. Climb Walls as a Thief (Increased Balance)
  12. Cast Strength 1/hr takes 1 turn to cast (Increased Physical Attribute)
  13. Cast Jump 1/hr (Increased Physical Attribute)
  14. Cast Resist Fire 1/8hrs (Increased Physical Attribute)
  15. Detect Traps — may detect traps, false walls, hidden construction, and notice if passages are sloped with a roll of 1-4 on a d6 (Increased Sense)
  16. +1 AC (Natural Armor)
  17. Cast Blindness 1/8hrs (Optic Emissions)
  18. Cast Deafness 1/8hrs (Shriek)
  19. Cast Magic Missile 1/hr (Toxic Weapon)
  20. Arcane Dabbling — 15% chance of being able to use Magic-User-only-type magic items (like wands); increases by 10% each level to a max of 90%. Failure may have unindented consequence if Referee so desires (Mystic Sense)

Half-orcs fight and save as fighters and may use any weapon and any armor.

Reaching 9th: At 9th level, a replicant may build a stronghold.

XP         Level
1700         2
3400         3
6800         4
13600       5
27200       6
55000       7
110000     8
230000     9
350000   10
470000   11
590000   12
710000   13
830000   14

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Saintly Saturday: St. Benedict of Nursia

Today is the Feast Day of St. Benedict of Nursia. Born in A.D. 480 in Nursia, a small town northeast of Rome, he took to monasticism at a young age. He lived as a hermit for several years. As happens so often in the history of the church, people started hearing stories and were attracted to his presence, seeking spiritual guidance. Many decided to become monastics themselves.

As a consequence, St. Benedict wrote a monastic rule, based upon the works of St. Basil the Great. This, then became the foundation upon which Western monasticism was based — Benedictine monasticism. He built a monastery on Mount Cassino (Montecassino) and died there in A.D. 547.

For those interested in a detailed examination of the Rule of St. Benedict and how I have used it as a source of gaming inspiration, I would direct you here. Today, I am much more interested in writing about WWII.

The Montecassino Monastery was sacked and destroyed several times throughout history, but one of the most interesting and tragic of these events occurred during the Allied offensive in Italy. Montecassino was part of the Gustav Line, which was a German defense designed to stall the Allied push through Italy.

American forces were convinced that the Nazis had occupied the monastery and were using it as an observation post. On February 15 in 1944 the monastery was almost completely destroyed by American air raids. Tragically, it turned out that the Germans had stayed clear of the monastery for fear of the artifact being damaged by the allies and the only people killed in the bombing were some 230 Italian civilians seeking refuge.

Ironically, after its destruction, the Germans did occupy it and it helped them stave off four Allied assaults prior to withdrawing in May of 1944.

I mention all this because this suggests an interesting twist on the abandoned monastery trope of dungeon design. There are plenty of examples of Chaotic monasteries being sacked by Lawful forces and subsequently re-occupied (Temple of Elemental Evil immediately comes to mind). There are also example of Lawful monasteries that were sacked by Chaotic forces and have yet to be recovered (my own Lost Colonies campaign uses this trope).

The story of the Montecassino Monastery suggests a scenario where a Lawful monastery is destroyed by Lawful forces because of a misunderstanding and then subsequently occupied by Chaos. Such a background story could be the source of all kinds of interesting mischief as those same Lawful forces could very well be actively covering up the story in order to maintain their power. Thus, PCs could run afoul of the authorities back home should they learn too much...

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

OKW: Cezavy Regional Map

Cezavy refers to a common language spoken by various tribes in the northeast of the OKW. The are a barbarian peoples who have only recently stepped on the road to civilization. As such, the word “Empire” is more symbolic than actual, though there is a foundation in place on which to build.

Historically, the Cezavy peoples lived in various Principalities (also called Duchies) controlled by city-states. Each city-state had its own method of choosing a prince (traditionally called a Graf). As such, there really isn’t a well-developed aristocracy. There is an acknowledged difference between land-owners (boyars) and those who don’t own land (peasants and, in some cases, serfs), but this line has always been fairly easy to cross.

The seeds for empire were first planted when missionaries arrived in Cezavy lands from the Thyatic Empire. The first to convert were the Grafs of Sclavak and others soon followed. Thyatic bishops started establishing churches and the Cezavy people had something larger than their own city-states to aspire to. They were now part of the Thyatic sphere of influence.

When Chaos overran the Thyatic Empire, the Grafs of the Cezavy saw themselves as the last bastion of Civilization. A Tsar (meaning “emperor”) was chosen, and a shaky political alliance has formed. Whether or not this new political reality can withstand either the forces of Chaos or internal strife, only time will tell.

Here is a regional map, showing the six Principalities that make up the Cezavy Empire:

The area shown in the map is approximately 425 miles by 300 miles. Spheres of influence are indicated by color:

Grand Duchy of Sclavak (Red) 

Along with Beloz, Sclavak is the oldest of all the Cezavy states (thus the title “Grand” Duchy). Though it is not the richest nor does it have the largest military force of all the Cezavy states, Sclavak has traditionally had the most political influence. This is, in part, due to the fact that Sclavak is home to the Archbishop; however, even before the coming of Thyatic missionaries, the Grafs of Sclavak had invested heavily in a very well developed spy network. Colloquially, the Graf of Sclavak is known as the Old Fox or the Silver Fox. In part, this is due to the heraldry of Sclavak, but also due to the way they have always managed to get the upper hand through information brokering and manipulation. As a result, when the Empire was formed, the Graf of Sclavak was selected as Tsar.

Grand Duchy of Beloz (Purple) 

Beloz is a long-time rival of Sclavak. They have the largest military of all the Cezavy states and boast of a long and proud military tradition. This might have been enough for the Grafs of Beloz to lay waste to their rivals had not much of their military effort been focused on defending their long southern border from the Vanog Orcs of the Altan Tepe Mountains. They are most closely allied with Shuyusk. Colloquially, the Graf of Beloz is known as the Eagle, and sometimes the Black Eagle if they should take a despotic turn.

Republic of Pleskov (Green) 

Pleskov is singular among the Cezavy states because the Graf of Plaskov is indirectly elected by the gatherings of the people in what are called Veches. These institutionalized assemblies directly elect an advisory council of six members who then go on to elect a Graf. Electoral ties are traditionally broken by the bishop of Pleskov. As a result, the burgher class in Pleskov has a tremendous amount of influence and has made Pleskov the most wealthy Cezavy state by making it merchant-friendly. There is a bit of a rivalry between the Archbishop of Sclavak and the bishop of Pleskov. Due to its relative political power, its wealth and its traditional proximity to the Thyatic Empire, there are many who have argued that the see of Pleskov should be the seat of the archbishop and not Sclavak.

Principality of Shuyusk (Brown)

Shuyusk may not be the oldest Principality in the Cezavy Empire, but it is one of the most traditional. It was the last to see Thyatic missionaries, and it still chooses its Graf in the ancient Cezavy method: by trial of combat. This is not, however, simply a test of martial skill. Of equal importance is how one fights. A council of tribal elders decides whether or not any of the combatants are worthy to be Graf (there have been times when the answer was no). This emphasis of martial prowess is due to threats on two fronts: Vanog Orcs to the south and the Hagoth Clans to the east. There are rumors that the current Graf has formed an alliance with a group of werebears and may very well be one himself.

Principality of Azov (Blue)/Duchy of Chelyadin (Orange)

These two Principalities are the youngest of all the Cezavy states, having been formed at the birth of the Empire. The Graf of what was then the Great Principality of Azyadin was steadfastly against the formation of the Empire and several other Grafs were happy to allow him to be an impediment to the new Cezavy State. The Silver Fox prodded the recalcitrant Graf onto the battlefield where he was betrayed by his uncle and his illegitimate son. Azyadin was split between the two. Azov is now in the hands of the son and the uncle is now Graf of Chelyadin. They supported the SIlver Fox’s bid to become Tsar and the Empire was born. As a result, the two states are seen by many to be puppet states of Sclavak. Certainly, they are the most despotic of the Cezavy states, as neither Graf trusts their people nor do they have the confidence of their people.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Gamer ADD: An Original Known World Campaign

Thanks to all of the interesting information made available about the Original Known World (OKW) through the diligence of James Mishler and the generosity of Lawrence Schick (see the links here), I have a serious case of Gamer ADD. Admittedly, I’ve never been a big fan of Mystara and I certainly have never run or been a player in the Known World; however, I really like the idea of starting with the raw material of the Known World prior to publication and running with it.

The problem with it is its size. The OKW is HUGE. In order to really do a thought experiment about the OKW any justice, I will need to choose one of the cultural analogs and focus on that. Of those listed by Schick, three really interest me: Thyatis (Ancient Greece/Rome), Corunglain (Byzantine) and Cezavy/Sclavak (Kievan Rus).

One of the main reasons for this is that of all the various deities that end up on Moldvay’s and Schick’s grand table of gods, nothing corresponds to either Byzantium or the Kievan Rus. This, of course, is due to the fact that both were explicitly Christian civilizations. What interests me about Thyatis is that the existence of a Byzantine culture suggests that Thyatis is the same culture.

The word “Byzantine” was coined in the 16th century by a Frenchman long after what we call the Byzantine Empire collapsed. In reality, the Empire that had Constantinople as its capital called itself the Roman Empire. In other words, it is incorrect to say that the Roman Empire fell in the fifth century A.D. Rome fell, but the Empire persisted in the East for another thousand years. Thus, if we were to use this historical pattern as a reference, what was the Thyatis Empire still exists in a diminished form in Corunglain. This suggests that the Thyatis Empire had adopted Christianity or a fantasy analog prior to its collapse.

The “Byzantines” were also responsible for the Christianization of the Rus and were responsible for providing bishops throughout the Kievan Rus period. When Constantinople fell, the Russians adopted the concept of the “Third Rome.” In the same way that the Roman Empire continued to exist sans Rome in Constantinople, the Russians sought to be the center and protector of (Orthodox) Christian civilization after Constantinople became Istanbul. Thus, Cezavy has taken up the mantle of “Empire” in an effort to aspire to be the next Thyatis.

Of the three, I am least inclined to expand upon Thyatis, simply because it played such a large part in what became Mystara. Corunglain certainly has the most intriguing geography. It is the closest of the three to the Tharks and has immediate neighbors in Akoros (Mughal India) and Karameikos. Cezavy, though, has a couple of things going for it that really interest me.

Firstly, it exists only in the OKW and not in Mystara (to my knowledge). Therefore, I don’t have any canon I need to worry about stepping all over. Secondly, the Kievan Rus period is really interesting. It is familiar enough for players to immerse themselves into the setting, but also alien enough to make things interesting. The one factor, however, that really attracts me to Cezavy is its proximity to the “marginally human” Quastogs. Schick explains that they have a difficult time reproducing and go far wand wide to raid other cultures abducting people. This is great fodder for background noise and adventures. It also gives me an excuse to put a new spin on the half-orc.

Therefore, my currently non-playing gamer mind will be keeping itself busy with bringing an OKW Cezavy campaign setting to life. I hope you enjoy.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Saintly Saturday: St. Paul the Confessor

Today is the Feast of St. Paul the Confessor. The title Confessor refers to those Christians who were jailed and/or tortured for the faith but were not martyred. St. Paul live during the second phase of iconoclasm during the eighth and ninth centuries. He was bishop of the city Prusa in Bithynia. He was harassed, persecuted and exiled for his zealous defense of the icons. He died in A.D. 850.

In recent weeks, there have been several saints from Bithynia popping up here on Saturdays. This only adds another layer of detail to the slowly developing Sea of Mamara campaign setting. It seems that the rebel monks are fighting against heretical rulers. One now only needs to decide whether those rulers are in Nicomedia or Byzantium...

Having a despot who champions heresy, imprisoning bishops while rebel monks try to protect both the faith and the people or conversely, a group of heretical rebel monks wrecking havoc are both great backgrounds upon which to build a campaign. The question must be asked, however: what does heresy look like?

As St. Paul demonstrates, heresy can be as esoteric as whether or not icons should be used during worship. I suppose one could find a copy of the Panarion by St. Epiphanius which details eighty different heresies, but that is more of a scholarly exercise than I am willing to undertake at the moment.

Rather, I am going to try to boil down all of the various historical heresies into a few broad categories. I will then assign to each a general behavior pattern that follows from the internal logic of the heresy as well as the type of NPC most likely to adhere to those beliefs.

Man Saves Himself

These heresies remove God from the salvific equation in some way fashion or form. While atheism falls under this category, God doesn’t need to be completely ignored. Any heresy that minimized the divinity of Christ falls under this generalization.

The ultimate logical outcome of these heresies is Might Makes Right. Generally speaking, what is good and ethical derives from humanity, not from God. Thus, what is good and ethical is determined by those who are willing to use force to coerce everyone else into agreeing with them.

Those in power or those seeking power are the most likely to adhere to these kinds of heresies.


These heresies attribute equal power to an evil entity or god that opposes the true god. Most commonly, this is found in the various gnostic heresies. Generally, the evil god is responsible for the creation of matter while the good god is responsible for the soul.

Thus, the material world is irredeemable. This leads to extreme forms of asceticism, where the fleshly body is seen as a foreign entity that needs to be conquered. Destruction of material things deemed too tempting or distracting would be understood as normal and beneficial.

Monastics, as well as intellectual and social elites are the most likely candidates for this kind of heresy.


This is a fancy way of saying that god is one and only one. This includes those heresies that opposed to the Orthodox belief that God is not only one, but trinity. It also includes all of the various heresies which over-emphasize the divinity of Christ.

Chauvinism and fatalism are the two most common practical outcomes of these heresies. If god is one and he looks and talks like me, then he must not look and talk like them. If salvation is completely in the hands of god, then my fate has already been decided. Thus, violent acts towards outsiders are completely justifiable, as are suicide attacks.

The most likely adherents of these kinds of heresies are suppressed minorities, people with very strong ethnic or national identities or just those who are afraid of people different from them.

Thus, in the example above of the Sea of Mamara campaign, the heretical rulers are most likely adherents of Man Saves Himself although one could justify the rulers of Nicomedia believing in Monarchiamism...

Friday, March 6, 2015


I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but some really interesting info has recently been unearthed about the Known World which was originally published in Cook’s Expert Edition and which eventually became known as Mystara. Lawrence Schick (author of White Plume Mountain), who helped Moldvay create the Known World, has been kind enough to share with us a bunch of info about what the Known World looked like prior to publication. You can find the awesomeness here (with a big shout out to James Mishler):

One of the most fascinating things about this whole exercise is the inclusion of various non-human/demi-human races from literature not penned by J.R.R. Tolkien — Tharks and Kzinti, for example. The latter were meant to be a PC race and ended up in D&D as Rakasta and Tabaxi. The tharks, on the other hand, were just too strange and were always going to be a monster-type that attacked everybody. Well, as those who are familiar with my playing style, I like weird. Therefore, I am really interested in working on a campaign to take place within the Original Known World and for that I want to give players an opportunity to play a thark.

To that end, I need to start with Champions (of which I played 1st-3rd editions). I am a big fan of Champions because of the way it approaches the special effects of super-heroes. Rather than try to come up with rules to cover every type of ranged attack found in comic books, they reduced everything to mechanics. It was then the player’s job to describe these mechanics with special effects. For example, a 10d6 ranged attack could be ice, fire, laser, an elongated fist punch, chunks of rock, etc. If one takes the same approach with the demi-human classes found in the ACKS Players Companion, all kinds of goodness can be found there.

For example, here is how a basic dwarf is expressed mechanically in ACKS:

  • They require a minimum Con of 9
  • They cannot use TH swords or longbows
  • They cannot use arcane magic
  • They have a +1 to surprise rolls in a given situation (underground)
  • They speak four bonus languages
  • They can spot traps
  • They have bonuses to saving throws (+3 vs. Breath and +4 to everything else)
  • They are limited to a 13th level maximum

If one divorces these mechanics from the "special effect" of being a dwarf, it is possible to apply all of these mechanics to other non-human and demi-human races, thus allowing us to create PC classes for all kinds of races from whatever source material we want.

These mechanics, for example, could easily be used to describe tharks. The no TH swords and longbows could be explained as a cultural bias. Or, better yet, one could expand that limitation to all TH weapons, explaining that such a fighting style is inefficient with four arms. If you throw in the fact that wearing heavy armor also interferes with their fighting style, there are two available slots for bonuses to represent having four arms:

  • They can wear two shields, giving a total of +2 to AC.
  • They can use the two-weapon fighting style (which normally gives a +1 to hit) while wearing shields. This fighting style also gives them a +1 to damage.
  • For flavor, tharks could get a -1 reaction roll with all other races, but a +1 with other tharks.

Otherwise, they fight and save as fighters and can use any weapon that doesn’t require a TH fighting style.

Requirements: CON 9
Prime Requisite: STR
Hit Dice: 1d8
Damage Die: 1d8
Maximum Level: 13 
XP       Level
2500         2
5000         3
10000       4
20000       5
40000       6
800000     7
160000     8
270000     9
400000   10
530000   11
660000   12
790000   13

So, you want to play a thark in the Original Known World of B/X? There you go, compliments of the guys over at Autarch via the ACKS Players Companion.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Meditating on Assassins

One of the ways in which I am a serious geek is my love of foreign language film and TV. One of my favorite sub-genres of this is the stuff coming out of Korea. A fascinating genre within Korean film and TV focuses on the life and times of King Jeongjo. There are several meditations on this period of the Josean dynasty during the 18th century in a similar fashion that there are a plethora of movies, books and TV shows that focus on King Arthur in the English speaking world. King Jeongjo, however, was a real historical figure whose life and death are still subject to all kinds of speculation.

His grandfather had his father executed in front of his eyes by royal decree and his reign was plagued by internal strife. Assassination attempts on his life were a regular feature of his reign, seven coming in his first year as king alone. In my top five favorite films of 2014 is The Fatal Encounter starring Hyun Bin in a stunning performance as King Jeongjo. The movie focuses on the 24 hours leading up to one of these assassination attempts.

This is all a preamble for a meditation on the assassin class in DnD and its various clones. I have never been a fan of this class, nor have I ever really allowed anyone to play an assassin in any of my campaigns. As far as I am concerned, it should be an NPC class because the whole idea of evil PCs is not conducive for fun in a campaign. Besides which, I was never much interested in having to play the whole political game of the assissin’s guild and the need for PCs to challenge higher-ups to advance as they are required in 1eAD&D. The only pseudo-historical model for this are ninjas and ninjas bore me.

The Fatal Encounter, however, has me reconsidering my stance on assassins because of the way they are depicted in the film. Assassins do not choose their profession, it is forced upon them from childhood. They are orphans, street urchins, or prisoners of war with no family connections kidnapped and literally thrown into pits. They are dehumanized, referred to by number, not by a name. They must fight in pits for food and survival. Only the fit are allowed to survive.

The “Grandfather of Assassins” is a master manipulator. He finds the weaknesses of every one of his assassins and exploits them to get them to do want he wants. They are assigned to assume roles in society close to potential targets and live normal lives until such time that they are contacted with a mission.

Thus, these are not necessarily evil characters. Rather, they are characters who are where they are out of a desire to survive and exist. Potentially, theirs is a life trying to figure out how to become human.

After watching The Fatal Encounter, I went back and read all of the various iterations of the assassin class and was pleasantly surprised to find this note in S&W Complete:

Assassins must be of Neutral or Chaotic alignment. In the Original Game, Assassins could only be Neutrally aligned, presumably since their allegiance to a guild is similar to the Druidic allegiance to the powers of nature, and they are not indiscriminate in their actions.

This allows me enough flexibility to allow assassins in my game as PCs, especially if someone wants to take on the challenge of playing a character who was brought up within the soul crushing grip of the assassin’s guild as shown in The Fatal Encounter.

In short, if you are interested in seeing a really interesting depiction of an assassin’s guild on film, I can’t recommend The Fatal Encounter enough.