Friday, August 28, 2020

5e Also Knows How to do Monsters

In my last post, I admitted that I could not speak for 5e, due to my relative unfamiliarity with it, but made that case that monsters in MM1 are implicitly and explicity personifications of something seriously wrong with the world. Out of curiosity, I decided to look up the monster descriptions from several of the monsters I used as examples from the MM1 in the 5e MM. This is what I found: 

Blink Dog

Blink dogs harbor a long-standing hatred for displacer beasts and attack them on sight. 


Some sages believe the bulette is the result of a mad wizard's experiments at crossbreeding snapping turtles and armadillos, with infusions of demon ichor. 

Displacer Beast

The warriors of [the Unseelie Court] selectively bred the beasts to reinforce their ferocious and predatory nature, using them to hunt unicorns, pegasi, and other wondrous prey. 


The origin of the gnolls traces back to a time when the demon lord Yeenoghu found his way to the Material Plane and ran amok. 


Across the borderlands of civilization, settlements and settlers must contend with these aggressive humanoids, whose thirst for conquest is never satisfied. 


Grasping his mighty spear, he laid waste to the mountains, set the forests aflame, and carved great furrows in the fields. Such was the role of the orcs, he proclaimed, to take and destroy all that the other races would deny them. To this day, the orcs wage an endless war on humans, elves, dwarves, and other folk. 


The most common theory is that a demented wizard created the first specimen by crossing a giant owl with a bear. 

So, 5e also knows how to do monsters, too.

Tuesday, August 25, 2020

D&D Does (Did) Know What Monsters Are

Talysman, over at Nine and Thirty Kingdoms, has highlighted a post over at Throne of Salt which makes the claim that D&D doesn't know what monsters are.  Their conclusion is that monsters should be a symptom that somewhere, somehow the world has gone seriously wrong and that the way D&D does monsters fails in this regard. 

Now, I cannot speak about later editions of the game (though I can believe this of 5e, which seems to have forgotten how to teach players how to play the game), but I can speak for 1e. The MM1 was one of my very first purchases when I got into the hobby, and I spent many hours as a kid being inspired by what was depicted therein. I can, without hesitation, say that the MM1 explicitly and implicitly depicts monsters as symptoms of something gone horribly wrong.

Take the entry on the Bulette:

 The bulette (or landshark) was thought to be extinct until recently when this horror reappeared. It was a result of a mad wizard's experimental cross breeding of a snapping turtle and armadillo with infusions of demons' ichor.

Some idiot magic-user went and pulled a Frankenstein, but we took care of it. What? The monster is still out there? Who has been mucking with magics that shouldn't be messed around with?

Or, how about the Ghoul:

Ghouls are “undead” once human creatures which feed on human and other corpses. Although their change from human to ghoul has deranged and destroyed their minds, ghouls have a terrible cunning which enables them to hunt their prey most effectively.

Couple this with the entry on Ghasts, which boast an Intelligence of 11-12, you have the makings of a cult that seeks to cheat death through cannibalism. While functionally undead, these creatures are actually human.

Of course, there is the Owlbear:

The horrible owlbear is probably the result of genetic experimentation by some insane wizard.

Those pesky wizards, trying to play God in their towers, churning all kinds of vile things into the world. 

My favorite examples, though, are statements like this one, under Hobgoblin:

If elves are nearby, hobgoblins will attack them in preference to any other troops because of the great hatred they bear.

Similar statements can be found under kobolds, blinkdogs and displacer beasts. These statements invite us to imagine why such hatred exists in the first place — something is terribly wrong and these monsters are personifications of it.

So, for those of us who want to have archetypal evil in our FRPG worlds with monsters who personify sin, D&D has done us right since at least 1979.

Saturday, August 8, 2020

World Building with the Noahide Laws

In my last post, B.W. Byers asked me if I had ever looked at the Noahide Laws as a model for a pre-historic law/religious system for a FRPG setting. For those unfamiliar, they are a set of laws said to have been followed by Noah and his descendants after the flood. They seem to be implied in the admonitions God give Noah in Genesis 9:
But you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood. And for your lifeblood I will require a reckoning: from every beast I will require it and from man. From his fellow man I will require a reckoning for the life of man. Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image.
They are also implied by both the Book of Jubilees, a pseudographical book dated to the second century B.C., as well as Acts 15, where the Council of Jerusalem decides that Gentiles do not need to be circumcised but:
that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols, and from blood, and from what has been strangled, and from sexual immorality (v.29).
The earliest compilation of the laws can be found in the Tosefta, a collection of Jewish oral law dated to A.D. 189. The laws can also be found in the Talmud.

Traditionally, the laws can be enumerated as follows:
Not to worship idols.
Not to curse God.
To establish courts of justice.
Not to commit murder.
Not to commit adultery, bestiality, or sexual immorality.
Not to steal.
Not to eat flesh torn from a living animal.
The Noahide Laws are simpler than the Ten Commandments and yet still feel very grounded Scripture. In other words, this is an interesting starting place to create a world that feels both similar yet alien.

Bringing out the alien nature of a campaign world can begin with the law about murder. In Genesis, this law concerns bloodshed and this is echoed in the Tosefta. This brings up a dilemma, because God seems to demand that blood be shed for blood. While one could argue that He is warning us of the cycle of violence that revenge creates, it is also an opportunity to start building a society around the Noahide Laws based on various castes where a Law is either abrogated or specifically applied. If blood is to be shed for punishing murderers or in defense of a city from an invading force, a society needs a caste or classification of people who are allowed to break the Law of Bloodshed without fear of retribution from the Law.

Thus, I decided to take an ancient Hebrew letter and use it as both a symbol and a name for each of the castes:


Related to the Latin letter 'B'

The letter 'Bet' is associated with Family, so I thought it appropriate for representing the caste associated with sexual immorality. In a Scriptural context, this caste would be a place to protect victims: widows, orphans, and the abused. It is here that I am going to borrow one of the better ideas from The Witcher practitioners of arcane magic are rendered sterile in exchange for the power they gain from becoming a spell caster. Since, victims are damaged and see sexual relations in a broken way, the choice to become sterile in exchange for power becomes a much easier choice. Consequently, it would make sense that in context of the Noahide Laws that the Wizard's Guild would be the new family for the widow, orphan, and abused. One interesting side effect of this idea is that Magic-users are more likely to be women than men.


Related to the Latin letter 'A'

The letter 'El' is associated with Leadership and Power, appropriate for the caste responsible for setting up courts of justice. This would be the de facto aristocracy of the society, where leaders are known by the title Judge. Given that this is a pre-Davidic reality, however, this caste is not hereditary. It is something one must earn.


Related to the Latin letter 'E'

The letter 'Hey' is related to the verb Reveal. Societies are quite capable of mistaking medicine, science and certain creative acts as blasphemy by muscling in on what properly belongs to God (as the creator of all things). Thus, I thought this caste would be a place where such endeavors can happen in their proper context. Alchemists, blacksmiths, physicians, etc. all belong to this caste.


Related to the Latin letter 'M'

The letter 'Mem' is related to Blood, so it was a no-brainer to have this be the caste responsible for soldiering and execution.


Related to the Latin letter 'S'

The letter 'Shin' is associated with Eating, so it made sense to have this caste be related to the law against eating from a live animal. This caste would involve all those professions responsible for  processing animals into food: butchers, herders, hunters, etc.


Related to the Latin letter 'X'

The letter 'Sin' is related to the verb Grab. As such, I thought it a good fit for those who need to Steal legally — tax collectors; however, in context of a FRPG it also opens up the possibility for a legitimate version of the Thieves' Guild trope and a place for the Rogue/Thief class to have an official place within society. I am reminded of the classic Japanese movie The Taxing Woman.


Related to the Latin letters 'I & 'J'

The letter 'Yad' is associated with Worship, so this is another no-brainer: this is the priestly caste and a home for clerics. As an aside, the Noahide Laws are a polemic against paganism. The implication here is that the 'gods' worshipped by pagans are creatures, something that I have mediated on before in context of Deities & Demi-Gods.


Finally, we have the letter 'Ghah' which is associated with Rope, Twisting, Dark, and Wickedness. This symbolizes everything outside of Society — Chaos, in the tripartite alignment system of older versions of D&D. There are several things I like about this. Rope implies that those who have rejected the Noahide Laws are bound by sin. Twisting dovetails nicely into my Tolkien-inspired understanding of humanoids. Dark and Wicked nicely describe what monsters ought to be. As a bonus, while every letter used above has an analogue in the modern Hebrew, Greek, and Latin alphabets, Ghah has none. It is a nice reminder that Scripture tells us that God created everything from nothing and without God we return to the nothing from whence we came.

Sunday, August 2, 2020

Revisiting World-Building and Clerics

JB of BX Blackrazor has been interested in having religion being part of his RPG experience for a long time. As a consequence, our two blogs have bounced off of each other several times over the years. So, it came as no real surprise that JB decided to use my last post as a jumping off point for discussing his current state in the ongoing struggle of all us who play D&D with Alignment. As it so often happens with these kinds of things, JB has inspired me to revisit a post I did earlier this year on world-building.

In his own attempts at world-building for the purpose of creating a campaign that he could be entertained by for the rest of his life, JB wanted to ground his world by
…picking an epoch in our real world past that is so far removed from today that who knows WHAT might have happened "way back then"
To this end, he has gone far back enough in time that Judeo-Christianity is not a thing. He does, however, indicate that he still wants his cosmology to be sensible.

He opts for what he calls a “New Age-y” cosmology than boils down to a form of pantheism. Historically speaking, the word “pantheism” was coined in the late 17th century and as a concept only really ever showed up as a tendency in other non-pantheistic religious traditions.

While not my cup of tea, he does pose a world-building conundrum that I find tantalizing: how would I build a FRPG game world based on a real world human epoch in the far distant past? As suggested by the title of this post, this isn’t my first time meditating on such things, but JB lays out a few needs that I find inspiring:

  • The cosmology need to be sensible
  • There needs to be a answer as to what is evil and how it came about
  • The cosmology needs to justify the existence of a megadungeon as a central focus of the campaign

In a move that will surprise no one, I am going to turn to the Biblical narrative of Genesis for a lot of these answers; however, where I go in Genesis may be unexpected:
So the Lord dispersed them from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. Therefore its name was called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth. And from there the Lord dispersed them over the face of all the earth. — Genesis 11:8-9
So, the idea here is that Tower of Babel represents that move away from the monotheism of ancient man towards the development of a pagan pantheon as humanity moved from hunter gatherers to agriculture. The people who built the Tower seek to elevate themselves and the gods they have created to the heavens. God came down (which in a Christian context would have been the Angel of the Lord, aka the pre-incarnate Christ) and scattered the people and confused their tongues. In a fantasy context, this could be the genesis of all the various fantasy races. Humanoids in this context can be seen as members of the different races that are twisted because they continue to strive for the goals of the builders of the Tower in defiance of God.

This event also marks the collapse of the prior, more technologically and magically advanced age. These artifacts are not inherently evil, though one might be tempted to have the occasional intelligent sword remind players that the civilization that created the sword set itself against God. So, there would be a desire for the current civilization to recover what it could of the old and use it in a more appropriate way.

The Tower itself could be the megadungeon. The city that built it was abandoned. Given the apparent size of the building, it would be a perfect vehicle for a megadungeon. Want something resembling volcanic caves? No problem, the presence of God Himself walked down to earth using the Tower. Given that God tells Moses that anyone who looks upon the face of God would not survive, we have a lot of leeway as to what the Tower looks like in the present campaign.

In terms of building a civilizational ethos without the advent of the Covenants of the Old and New Testaments, we have the command of God to tend the garden. The People (which will cover all of the various fantasy races, given that God’s action at the Tower is the origin of all the races) are created according to the Image and Likeness and therefore bear the responsibility of representing God to creation and to lift up creation to God. Thus, being caretakers of creation and attempting to return it to a pristine condition might be the motivating factor for lifting up the sword against the humanoid hordes which seek to claim creation for their own.