Saturday, December 25, 2021

Christ is Born!


Glorify Him!

Merry Christmas! I know I haven't been active around here lately. In the past that has usually coincided with some kind of long-term hospital stay or other health-related incident within the family. Thank God that is not the reason this time around. Rather, my gaming attention for the last several months has shifted away from RPGs and back to my other love, wargaming. I have been planning on doing some posts about that, but time hasn't permitted. Hopefully, the new year will see me back in this space sharing some of the things bouncing around inside my head and taking place on the table. In the meantime, God bless you all.

Monday, September 20, 2021

Scripture & the Megadungeon Part 6: Becoming Immortal

As I have perused the OSR corner of the internet over the years, there seems to have been a significant number of folks who owned some version of BECMI back in the day. I was not one of them. I did buy a .pdf of the Rules Compendium for $4 before WotC panicked and pulled all their .pdfs offline during the internecine edition wars when 4th edition was first released. I bought it out of curiosity and have subsequently never used it. Although it does expand upon B/X (my favorite BTB edition of D&D), I find the three column layout to be an eyesore and I have never really been interested in playing much beyond 9th level anyway. So, I never saw the need. Until now.

As I have been delving into how Scripture would inform D&D, especially in the form of a megadungeon, I have been confronted with the distinct possibility of having immortality as an end goal. In St. John’s Apocalypse, the Evangelist describes a vision of the Heavenly Temple and the throne of God:

He who sat [on the throne] was like jasper and a sardis stone in appearance; and there was a rainbow around the throne, in appearance like an emerald. Around the throne were twenty-four thrones and on the thrones I saw twenty-four elders sitting, clothed in white robes; and they had crowns of gold on their heads.

The significance of the number twenty-four can be found in the tenth chapter of Genesis, Deuteronomy 32:8 and the account of the war in heaven from the twelfth chapter of Revelation. I won’t bore you with a quote from Genesis, since it is the genealogy of Noah and consists of a bunch of names — seventy-two of them. Each of these names correspond to one of the nations mentioned in Deuteronomy:

When the Most High gave to the nations their inheritance, when he divided mankind, he fixed the borders of the peoples according to the number of the sons of God.

The term sons of God refers to the angelic and divine beings that sit on God’s council. Therefore, God’s council has 72 seats. In describing the two sides in the war in heaven, St. John notes that one third of this divine council fell with the devil;

…behold, a great red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns, and on his heads seven diadems. His tail swept down a third of the stars of heaven and cast them to the earth.

Note that one third of seventy-two is twenty-four. These twenty-four elders are twelve patriarchs from the OT and the twelve apostles from the NT.

Given that numbers in Scripture are often more symbolic than concrete, that seven is an ideal number, and that larger numbers like seventy-two can be understood to mean simply a lot, the image here portrayed by St. John is that of Christ replacing the fallen angels on His divine council with saints from both the OT and NT eras.

In other words, Mentzer’s project to allow PCs to reach for immortality has its place in the game, at least from a Scriptural point of view. Unfortunately, the path that Mentzer lays out is extremely difficult at best. There are three Prerequisites: 1) Select a Sphere of Power that the PC wishes to serve 2) Find an Immortal sponsor and 3) Reach 30th level.

It is this last prerequisite that has always put a damper on things. I have never seen any PC is any campaign I have ever played reach higher than 9th level. To echo James over at Grognardia in a recent post about how 1e Dieties and Demigods handles the same idea: why bother?

Interestingly, DDG is much less dogmatic about the level necessary to reach immortality:

the character in question must have advanced to an experience level that is significantly above and beyond the average level of adventure-type characters in the general campaign. (This includes all such non-player types as military leaders, royal magic-users, etc.) For example, if the average level of characters in a campaign, both player and non-player, is around 5th level, then a candidate for ascension should be something like 9th or 10th level.
Given that monster stats of “adventurer-type humans” in B/X range from only 1 to 3 HD, this significantly lowers the XP threshold for PCs to aspire to the status of an immortal. It also makes sense narratively, given that 5th level M-Us get access to 3rd level spells and 6th level clerics get access to 3rd and 4th level spells. The introduction of spells like Dispel Magic, Fire Ball, Fly, Water Breathing, Cure Disease, Neutralize Poison, and Remove Curse have a significant effect on a campaign world. 

The other two prerequisites from Mentzer offer no real obstacle from a Scriptural POV. There is only One Power — God. In the Orthodox Church, nations, families, and individuals all have Patron Saints. Thus, every PC would practically start the game already having fulfilled two of the three prerequisites. This, then, only leaves us with how a PC attains what Mentzer calls immortality and what the Church calls sainthood. 

Fortunately, the history of the Church gives a very simple answer: the vast majority of canonized saints have all experienced death. Indeed, the category of saint that has more exemplars than any other is that of the martyr.

Saint Sebastian

Thus, the immortality that Scripture offers to the PC in a setting where much of action takes place inside a megadungeon is not the same immortality that Mentzer or the DDG talk about. Rather than trying to climb the heights of the heavens by sheer will (how else can I describe a campaign that lasts long enough for a PC to get to 30th level?), the player is given a viable option when faced with the possibility of death. Normally, (at least in an Old-School campaign where character deaths are a more common occurrence) a player who has played a PC to 5th level or higher has learned caution and to have a healthy instinct for self-preservation. While admirable in context, the end result is that the game disincentivizes heroic deaths — especially if spells like Reincarnate and Raise Dead are either unavailable or difficult to come by. While one of the most iconic scenes in fantasy is Gandalf telling the Fellowship, “Fly you fools!” and letting go, such acts of self-sacrifice are few and far between in FRPGs, at least in my decades of experience.

If, however, there was a mechanism by which a player might be rewarded by having their PC become a local saint in the campaign world, the choice to die gloriously in order for others to escape or live is something players might actually do. In long-term play, such choices would allow players to start building chapels to their fallen comrades, discover new spells associated with these new saints, celebrate feast days and thus have a character death have as much effect on a campaign world as PCs getting to 9th level and carving out a kingdom of their own.

The important factor here is player choice. One of the benefits of sandbox campaigns with tent-pole megadungeons is the fact that there is not only an abundance of player choice, but plenty of opportunities to encounter creatures well beyond the capability of PCs to defeat. Along with treasure (spent) being the primary means of gaining XP, a glorious death resulting in sainthood gives players another option about how their PC affects the campaign world.

Monday, August 23, 2021

In Defense of the Genius of HPL

James over at Grognardia reminded me that I missed HPL’s birthday, so I was inspired to go to our local library to borrow the recently published (2014, 2019) annotated volumes of his short stories. Edited by Leslie S. Klinger, the first has an introduction by the comic book legend Alan Moore. Unfortunately, Moore’s contribution to the project was more that a little disappointing.

While acknowledging HPL’s undeniable cultural influence, Moore found himself surprised at the “sheer unlikelihood of his ascent into the ranks of the respected U.S. literary canon.” This is, in part, due to the fact that HPL was only published in the “sensational and stigmatized pulp magazines,” although I would argue that we should look to these publications to find the Great American Writer because there is nothing more American than those same pulp magazines of the early twentieth century.

Then we get to the real reason Moore is so surprised by HPL’s ascent:

“acceptance of his output as substantial literature has undeniably been hindered by his problematic stance on most contemporary issues, with his racism, alleged misogyny, class prejudice, dislike of homosexuality, and anti-Semitism”
As a reminder, when HPL published his first story in 1916, Woodrow Wilson was in the White House. For those unaware, the 28th President of the U.S. not only screened The Rise of a Nation in the White House, but re-segragated it. I think it safe to forgive HPL for many of his unsavory views simply due to context. Indeed, if we were able to look at our own time through the lens of our progeny some hundred years from now, we might find ourselves unfairly judged for various -isms that we take for granted that they will see as vital as we see the various -isms we accuse HPL of.

Unfortunately, Alan Moore can’t bring himself to be so forgiving. Instead he tries to justify HPL’s ascent:

…it is possible to perceive Howard Lovecraft as an almost unbearably sensitive barometer of American Dread. Far from outlandish eccentricities, the fears that generated Lovecraft’s stories and opinions were precisely those of the white, middle-class, heterosexual, Protestant descended males who were most threatened by the shifting power relationships and values of the modern world.

In Moore’s desperate attempt to separate himself from the various -isms associated with the environment HPL grew up in, he exposes his own small minded-ness and bigotry. In doing so, he not only misunderstands Lovecraft's appeal, but exposes just how nasty and severely limited a world-view dominated by the -isms we find so important actually is.

Given the presuppositions that fuel philosophies like intersectionalism and CRT, the color of one’s skin is determinative of just about everything in our life. If Moore’s assessment of HPL is correct, the only people who can really enjoy Lovecraft are those that share his fears as “white, middle-class, heterosexual, Protestant descended males who [are] … threatened by the shifting power relationships” and the very institutions that are now lifting HPL’s canon into the heights of the American literary canon are a bunch of -ists of various flavors.

What I find so disappointing about this vicious bile is not only that Moore’s canon largely exists within the direct descendent of the pulp magazine —the comic book — but that he comes so tantalizingly close to hitting upon the real reason HPL deserves to be among the literary greats of the American canon. Moore notes;

…advances in humanity’s expanding comprehension of the universe with its immeasurable distances and its indifferent random processes had redefined, dramatically, mankind’s position in the cosmos. Far from being the whole point and purpose of creation, human life became a motiveless and accidental outbreak on a vanishingly tiny fleck of matter situated in the furthest corner of a stupefying swarm of stars, itself one of many such swarms strewn in incoherent disarray across black vastness inconceivable.

While I vehemently disagree with this understanding of creation and of humanity, it accurately describes the harsh reality of the atheist position — and HPL was an atheist. It is in this that we can begin to appreciate Lovecraft’s appeal and his genius.

Despite the materialism that undergirds the atheism of the modern era, elves, dwarves, faeries, and dragons are very real things. Not in a material sort of way, of course. Rather, they are the imaginative and symbolic manifestations of our fears. These creatures represent the Other and the Outside and the fears that surround these things in the narrative way that we, as human beings, experience the world. Except that, in HPL’s lifetime, dragons were beginning to lose their narrative power. Dinosaur fossils were being found all over the world. Scientists appeared to be able to explain a materialist origin for creatures who very much looked like the dragons of our imagination. The universal fear of the Other and the Outside, however, never wanes.

The genius of HPL is that in the vastness of the meaningless cosmos that his atheism demanded, he found a new way to manifest the dragon. In the various elder gods, aliens, and malformed creatures that drive his characters to and over the edge of the madness that haunted his own family, he found a new way to narratively manifest the fears that always accompany humanity as we navigate the realities of our own existence. The reason HPL’s imagination has resonated as much as it has is due largely to the fact that, as hard as we try, the reality of his literary dragons cannot be so easily explained away as the ones that occupied the faerie tales of our childhood. This is made all the more true by the fact that his fears were prescient.

HPL died before the horrors of communism and fascism were widely known. These monstrous children of the materialist world-view truly drove humanity mad. These fevered fantasies and utopian nightmares driven by what could be called a Call of Cthulhu, killed tens if not hundreds of millions. The realities of Hitler’s concentration camps, Stalin’s gulags, Mao’s cultural revolution, and so many other crazed and vain attempts at altering reality creep at the back of our imagination. Like the dragons that fill the narrative fears of our forebears, HPL’s monsters fill ours. The horrors that Lovecraft describes in his stories are all hauntingly real. Lovecraft’s genius is that the monsters of his imagination are indeed cosmic and we are not likely to be able to explain them away anytime soon.

Thus, Alan Moore not only does a disservice to himself and his art, but to the genius of HPL.

As a final aside, I realize that it might seem strange that someone like myself would pen such an adamant defense of someone I so vigorously disagree with. In his own way, HPL is an honest atheist. The horrors that he describe are indeed very real. That kind of honesty is something to not only admire, but treasure. Additionally, that honesty was, in part, one of the reasons I was able to step away from the madness of atheism and its utopian nightmares and be able to see how very real Christ actually is.

Monday, August 2, 2021

Bonuses for Low Ability Scores

Over ten years ago, James over at Grognardia posited the idea that high ability scores ought to have drawbacks and low ability scores should have advantages. I have long agreed with the concept, but have always thrown up my hands once I try and figure out mechanics. As I was leafing through some notepads looking for some ideas for my series on Scripture and the Megadungeon, I ran across one of my abortive attempts at re-thinking ability scores. As a rough idea, I think it has promise.

I made a list of twelve combat stats, which theoretically allows each ability score to positively/negatively affect two — one for a high ability and one for a low ability. Here is the list of twelve:

  • Armor Class 
  • Damage Melee 
  • Damage Missile 
  • Extra Spells 
  • Hit Points 
  • Save vs Death/Poison 
  • Save vs Paralysis/Petrify 
  • Save vs Spells/Rods/Staves 
  • Save vs Wands 
  • Surprise 
  • “to hit” Melee 
  • “to hit” Missile

I did not include Save vs Breath because dragons should be scary for everyone.

Now for the hard part — deciding which ability should affect each stat. I will go through each ability score and give my reasons why I chose the stat that should be affected.

STR: High = Damage Melee; Low = Surprise

Traditionally, a high STR has resulted in extra melee damage, so I don’t have to explain that. I reasoned that a low STR would result in being perceived as less of a threat, therefore someone who is more likely to be overlooked. A literary example of this would be hobbits. No one really took them seriously, yet they continuously surprised people.

INT: High = Damage Missile; Low = Save vs. Wands

I decided to give INT the nod on Damage Missile due to the reasoning and calculations necessary to find weak spots in an opponent’s armor. Justifying a Save bonus for a low INT score is more sketchy. My thoughts are that it has to do with our perception of magic, especially magic that emulates technology as a wand could. The less we understand technology, the less useful it is, the more ineffective it becomes. I realize that this is counter intuitive, but it is all I have for now.

WIS: High = Save vs Spells; Low = “to hit” Melee

Wisdom has traditionally given a bonus to Saves vs Spells, so no real need to explain. I justify the bonus “to hit” in Melee because someone with a lower WIS might take more dangerous opportunities to attack than someone who is wiser.

DEX: High = “to hit” Missile; Low = Save vs. Paralysis/Petrify

DEX has been associated with Missile combat for a long time, no need to explain; however, like INT above, I am on sketchy ground with Save vs. Paraylsis/Petrify. My thinking is that someone who is clumsy is closer to a condition of paralysis or petrification than someone with a high DEX.

CON: High = Hit Points; Low = Extra Spells

High CON has always been associated with hp, so no explanation necessary. I justify the low CON with extra spells in a narrative way, especially in context of arcane magic. The spell caster with a low CON has sacrificed health for more spell casting ability.

CHA: High = AC; Low = Save vs Death/Poison

My justification for both of these has do to with a more theological understanding of the word charisma which has its origin in the Greek word for gift with the implication that the gift is from God. In this case a high CHA, this results in a kind of continuous protection from God. The low CHA results in a bonus to Save vs Death/Poison as a sign that God occasionally reaches out to protect, with the implication that a success results in more time for the person to repent/get closer to God.

This whole set-up ignores all of the non-combat related bonuses normally associated with high abilities scores, such as Encumbrance, Languages, Reactions, etc. Coming up with a list of twelve would have required including Thief Skiils and/or XP bonuses. I wasn’t quite ready to do that. For now, I am happy to see these continue to be associated with the abilities they always have been. 

Any thoughts? Other ideas?

Wednesday, July 28, 2021

Scripture & the Megadungeon Part 5: Alignment

Strap in folks, this is a long one, but one that I am rather excited about. I hope you find it as useful as I have found it to be fun to work on and write.

Of all of the various “controversial” mechanics in D&D, Alignment is probably the most, because it doesn’t really work. What started out as a simple guide for which fantasy troop types could or would work together, it evolved into the nine-fold metaphysical mess that it is today. This failure is largely due to the fact that it couches Good and Evil in materialist language:

Basically stated, the tenets of good are human rights, or in the case of AD&D, creature rights. Each creature is entitled to life, relative freedom, and the prospect of happiness. Cruelty and suffering are undesirable. Evil, on the other hand, does not concern itself with rights or happiness; purpose is the determinant. — 1e DMG

The inherent problem with this is that materialism has no real metaphysics. Indeed, once one starts to seriously look into metaphysics, the materialist world-view begins to collapse in on itself. Note the relativism implied in "life, relative freedom, and the prospect of happiness." What is life when undeath is a reality? What is freedom when dangerous and powerful magics, including spells like Charm Person are available? Though undesirable, what if cruelty and suffering are the only means towards happiness? Is the purpose to serve others evil? All of these platitudes have no real meaning.

Thus, the instinct by many players today to entirely eliminate Alignment from the game is quite correct, from a materialist POV. I, however, reject materialism and my instinct is that it should be part of the game. The question has always been how.

In the modern, materialist world-view, the opposite of being is nothing — something that is no thing, has no being, has no material form. This is not how ancient Greek philosophers, and much of Western thought prior to the Enlightenment, understood things. Plato, Platonism, and Neo-Platonism all find that the opposite of being is becoming. Aristotle developed this into potential and actuality. To possibly over-simplify, there are things that change and things that don't. Those that don't are superior to those that do. As to why, remember death is the one change none of us can escape.

When one reads the Fathers of the Church, they use Platonic, Neo-Platonic, and Aristotelian language and concepts to explicate the Gospel, but ultimately reject the metaphysics of philosophy in favor of Scripture. English translations of Genesis describe the opposite of being as:

In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. (1:1-2)
The words "without form" and "void" in the Masoretic Hebrew are ṯō·hū and ḇō·hū, the latter only being used twice in the OT, both in conjunction with the first. In fact, the only way that we have an idea of how to translate ḇō·hū is other translations, specifically the Septuagint Greek. Ironically, a close examination of that Greek offers a different meaning.

The first word is ἀόρατος, which means "unseen" or "invisible." The second is ἀκατασκεύαστος, meaning "not properly prepared." This lack of preparedness implies something unformed, or (far more relevant to the subject of this post) chaos.

This primordial unseen chaos is represented by "darkness upon the face of the deep." Here, "the deep" is ἀβύσσου or the abyss. This abyss, however, is described in terms of the sea with the Holy Spirit hovering over the face of the water. In the Masoretic Hebrew, the abyss is rendered ṯə·hō·wm, which has been etymologically linked to Tiamat — the Babylonian goddess of the sea and a symbol for the chaos of primordial creation.

Being, therefore, is the order brought by God's creation and the purpose with which it is endowed. Using philosophical categories to explain the image and likeness of God in humanity, we are created to become like God and have the potential to share in God's eternity by the actualization of the divine in us. Paul describes this with the Greek word δικαιόω. Often translated as "justified," it literally means set right and shares the same root as righteousness. All of this, of course, is made manifest in the person of Jesus Christ, because without Him through whom all things were made, we are completely incapable of being.

Jesus also reminds us that only God is good (see Mark 10:18) and His brother James states:

Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and comes down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow of turning.

Thus, the source of all good in the world is God the Father, in whom is no change (note the link to Plato's thinking). Given this, there is no neutrality in creation. Either God's goodness flows through something or it doesn't and humanity has been given the task of tending creation — ordering the world according to the goodness of God.

It should be noted that the word alignment means to set in a straight line and the word for sin in both Greek and Hebrew means to miss the mark — the alignment of your life and actions have failed to align with the purpose set before you by God.

Let us now look at how D&D actually uses Alignment. It is possible to break down Alignment mechanically into four broad categories:
  • A code of conduct required of a PC to take advantage of class abilities. See clerics, monks, paladins, etc.
  • Something that determines the efficacy of certain spells such as Detect Evil and Protection from Evil.
  • An effect of a magic trap or item that either changes the alignment of a PC or determines the ability of a PC to use said item. See Helm of Alignment Change, Intelligent Swords, etc.
  • Alignment Languages.

Let's take a look at how Scripture might help to clarify these mechanics.

Class Requirements

Scripture clearly shows that there is no one way that an individual can become righteous. People from all walks of life from both the Old and New Testament are today recognized as Saints in the Orthodox Church: shepherds, kings, prophets, judges, fishermen, lawyers, tax collectors, physicians, slaves, women, children, etc. At the same time, many of these very same saints spent time falling away from God. It was an act of repentance that separates a King David from a King Saul, both of whom where made righteous by being chosen by God and anointed by the Prophet Samuel. All of this suggests that the core idea of having certain class abilities tied to behavior is Scriptural, as is the idea of quests of penance to get those abilities back after a fall. 

The behavior that is and isn't acceptable, however, is not necessarily going to be universal. The way a monk and a paladin deal with a situation, given their different set of skills, is necessarily going to be different. This all suggests that Players and Referees need to world build so that various organizations that represent various classes have clear cut Codes of Conduct. I might also suggest having clear paths of penance so that players can weigh the cost/benefit of breaking their codes. This would also free the Referee to be rather strict about enforcing those codes. Given the fact that most of the classes that have such codes are some of the most powerful in the game, and given that the Referee and players are clear as what is expected, this seems to me to be a reasonable ask for these classes.

Spell Effects

There are two basic types of spells that specify evil: Protection from Evil and Detect Evil. If we take a look at the original wording of the former, it really doesn't have anything to do with evil mechanically, despite its mention of "evil attacks:"

Protection from Evil: This spell hedges the conjurer round with a magic circle to keep out attacks from enchanted monsters. It also serves as an “armor” from various evil attacks, adding a +1 to all saving throws and taking a –1 from hit dice of evil opponents.

These spells specifically target attacks from enchanted creatures. Depending on how one interprets enchanted this could theoretically include traditionally Good creatures such as unicorns. Later editions do try to define "enchanted," such as Moldvay's "summoned or created" — a definition that does fit nicely into a Scriptural POV. Given this definition, however, this spell seems to be a variation on Protection Scrolls, which specify a type of creature that are affected — Protection from Lycanthropes, for example. While more recent versions of the game expand the scope of this spell to include Law/Chaos as well as Good/Evil, I think it far more practical to move that variety more in the direction of the Protection Scroll. Either PCs can have access to a variety of Protection spells or a specific category of creature is invoked when the spell is memorized or cast. Thus, this category is less about Alignment than it is about a targeted category of creature.

When it comes to the spell Detect Evil, the original explanation runs very much counter to Scripture:

Detect Evil: A spell to detect evil thought or intent in any creature or evilly enchanted object. Note that poison, for example, is neither good nor evil. Duration: 2 turns. Range: 6”.

Given that humans sin in thought all the time, this spell would produce nothing of any real import. Although it specifies an ability to detect an evil enchantment on an item, it explicitly declares a mundane object, such as poison, which is almost exclusively used for evil intent, as undetectable due to its neutrality. Given that it is impossible to be neutral when it comes to God (the source of all good), this use of this spell is non-sensical from a Scriptural POV.

To fix this, I think that the whole concept of detecting thoughts ought to be abandoned. Not only are there other spells that deal with this ability (ESP, for example), but the explanation is so ambiguous that, in my experience, the spell is rendered largely useless in this regard anyway. In order to make Detect Evil into a useful utility spell, we can take advantage of the Scriptural understanding of the co-creative role of humanity. In other words, the spell is able to detect the manner in which an object was last used — something aligned with God or aligned with a human desire for power, money, lust, etc. 

Thus, in context of a murder mystery, Detect Evil might be an interesting spell to use in order to try and determine a murder weapon, for example. It also gives the Referee a clear directive as to whether or not an object reeks of evil. In terms of world building, it also drives the need for spells like Bless and Purify Food and Water in non-adventure settings. Every year at Epiphany, for example, the priest goes from house to house blessing houses with the holy water blessed during the services of the Feast.

Magic Traps and Items

Now we finally come to a subject directly relevant to the subject of the megadungeon, and something that I think ought to be far more common, at least from a Scriptural POV. In Genesis, God warns Cain as he meditates on murdering his brother Abel:

So the Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry? And why has your countenance fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin crouches at the door. And its desire is for you, but you should rule over it.” — 4:6-7

The Masoretic Hebrew for "crouches" is etymologically linked to an Akkadian word rabitsu, which is a crouching demon that hides near doors. This warning refers to the fact that not all thoughts originate from within our minds. We are constantly being bombarded by thoughts from the holy and the demonic. To illustrate this, try praying the Jesus Prayer multiple times concentrating on the words: "Lord Jesus Christ Son of God have mercy on me a sinner." Very quickly, our minds will wander away. These thoughts that catch our attention are from the same rabitsu that were waiting at the door of Cain's heart.

In other words, as adventurers delve into the depths of the megadungeon trying to align themselves and the dungeon itself to the purposes of God, the challenges PCs should face ought to go beyond the physical. This can take the form of traps and magic items that force a PC to change their alignment away from God's purpose. Their resistance can either take the form of a Saving Throw or the Player's choice to refuse the power available to them through use of an item.

This is all well and good, but in the traditional D&D alignment system, the alignment change is the consequence in most cases. The rest lies in that nebulous space where Players try to interpret how their characters would now act "evil" or "chaotic" instead of "good" or "lawful." Unless the PC was a character that depended upon a specific alignment, there is no clear cut way as to how this mechanically affects the game.

If, however, "Alignment" referred strictly to a PCs relation to God's purpose, then there are some mechanical choices that can be made and imposed. In Orthodox Christianity, the "likeness" in the "image and likeness" of God refers to our eternal quest to become more and more like God. Thus, we can tie level progression to Alignment. Thus, a PC can't progress in level, regardless of the amount of XP accumulated, unless they are properly aligned. 

Those that fail a Saving Throw or choose to use a powerful magic item with an Evil Alignment must then perform some kind of act of repentance. This could take the form of tithing in cases of a missed Saving Throw, or a quest in cases of choosing to use evil magics. To my mind, this makes Alignment consequential and can make many Alignment decisions by Players far more meaningful: "I don't have the magic weapon necessary to defeat this monster, unless I pull out and use this evil sword."


Alignment Languages have long been a source of confusion and mockery. The idea that a PC who dons a Helm of Change Alignment simultaneously and instantly forgetting one language and learning a new one is rather laughable. In context of Scripture, however, understanding speech is tightly linked to a relationship with God. Prior to their attempt to control God by building the Tower of Babel, humanity all spoke the same language. As punishment for their audacity, God confused the languages. We see another explicit example in the Gospel of John:

[Jesus said,] "Father, glorify your name.” Then a voice came from heaven: “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” The crowd that stood there and heard it said that it had thundered. — 12:28-29

Those that were ready — Aligned to the purpose of God — heard the voice. Those that were not merely heard thunder. This suggests that Alignment languages can be understood by anyone who is willing. Thus, if a PC were willing to change their Alignment (as with the evil magic items above), an otherwise unreadable text would become known; however, like those willing to use evil magic items, they would then have to repent in order to advance in level. It would also make texts written in a heavenly language indecipherable. This renders spells like Read Languages and Comprehend Languages even more important than they already are, because they would allow a PC to read a forbidden text without making the necessary Alignment change.


If we are to use Scripture as a guide for making Alignment mechanically meaningful, we are forced to understand that the traditional Good/Evil and Law/Chaos dichotomies are meaningless. All order and good that is in the world have their source in God. Everything else is a manifestation of evil and chaos. Thus, a more useful language to use is In or Out of Alignment (with God's purpose).

At first glance, this may seem to run counter to the existence of Assassins, Barbarians, Druids, Thieves and any other class that have Alignment requirements that in traditional D&D embrace Chaos, Neutrality, and/or Evil. In a world in which Chaos manifests itself as the megadungeon, however, even PCs that live and operate in that grey area between Civilization and the Wilderness can align themselves with God's purpose by becoming adventurers that delve into the megadungeon.

Understanding Alignment as "In" or "Out" allows us to have some very clear mechanical consequences for choosing one over the other:

  • Classes that require a code of conduct to use certain class abilities are Out if they break that code
  • All PCs that are Out may not advance in level, regardless of XP earned
  • PCs that are In may read and understand "heavenly" languages
  • PCs that are Out may read and understand "demonic" languages
  • PCs that are Out may avoid certain magical traps and use certain magical items
  • PCs that are Out must perform penance in order to become In
  • The penance necessary to become In is up to the Referee and may include quests of various kinds

To my mind, this is a far more useful Alignment system than any I have encountered in D&D or elsewhere. It helps portray a world in a way that helps players understand how their choices interact with the realities of that world.

So, are you In or Out? ;)

Tuesday, July 20, 2021

Scripture & the Megadungeon Part 4: Factions

One of my favorite published megadungeons is Rappan Athuk published by Necromancer/Frog God Games. With all of its various entrances it is a sandbox campaign unto itself. Nonetheless, I still have quibbles. For example, while it is organized, it is not organized for use at the table and without a lot of preparation on my part makes for an awkward and slow gaming session with lots and lots and lots of page turning. For the purposes of this series, however, my biggest misgiving is this quote from the 2012 S&W edition:

Oh, and yes, Level 15 is still just intended for the Referee to read—Orcus is still supposed to be unbeatable.

This is, in part, due to the fact that Orcus is literally the logo of Necromancer games and they don’t want to produce a product where the symbol of their company gets killed. From a Scriptural POV, however, Orcus is doomed and Rappan Athuk will be conquered.

To make this case, let us first go to Genesis Chapter 18:

And the Lord appeared to [Abraham] by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the door of his tent in the heat of the day. He lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, three men were standing in front of him. (v. 1-2)

The oaks of Mamre were a pagan place of worship. The word for "standing" in verse 2 has a military connotation, coming from a word meaning "station" in Hebrew and "marshaling troops" in Greek. In other words, God is claiming this worship place as His own.

This is possible because, unlike other gods who are tied to a specific place, God's throne is mobile:

And the Ancient of Days was seated; His garment was white as snow, and the hair of His head was like pure wool. His throne was a fiery flame, its wheels a burning fire — Daniel 7:9
In the previous verse, the thrones of God's council are set up. We get a description of one of these thrones when Elijah is taken up into heaven. These thrones are chariots:
Behold, there appeared a chariot of fire, and horses of fire, and parted them both asunder; and Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven. — 4 Kings (2 Kings) 2:11

At the time of Moses, the primary place where God set his throne was in the tabernacle (a tent), which Moses made according to God's command:

See that you make everything according to the pattern that was shown you on the mountain. — Exodus 25:40

With the incarnation, the tabernacle became humanity itself:

καὶ ὁ λόγος σὰρξ ἐγένετο καὶ ἐσκήνωσεν ἐν ἡμῖν (And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us) — John 1:14

Note that in the Greek, the word translated as "dwelt" is ἐσκήνωσεν, which literally means to tabernacle. Thus, the place of God's throne — the tabernacle — is baptized humanity and through this humanity, all of creation. This includes megadungeons.

This does not suggest, however, that the megadungeon will be conquered long or even at all before the Second Coming. Note that Solomon, the builder of the Temple and the wisest of all men:

went after Ashtoreth the goddess of the Sidonians, and after Milcom the abomination of the Ammonites. So Solomon did evil in the sight of the Lord. 3 Kings (1 Kings) 11:5-6

Indeed, his son Rahoboam refused to listen to the advice of his elders and the Kingdom of Israel was split into the Northern and Southern Kingdoms. Eventually, both would succumb to foreign invaders because they failed to stay faithful to God.

This suggests that while Orcus and his ilk can be killed, there is always someone in the wings ready to take his place. In his portrayal of Morgoth, Sauron, and Saruman, Tolkien illustrates this very well. It also gives us a very different understanding of factions within the megadungeon.

Christ tells us (in reference to being accused to working for Baalzebul):

If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. — Mark 3:24
Thus, all the monsters within a megadungeon are on the same side. That doesn't mean, however, that various subordinates aren't gunning for a higher position within the team. Remember, Baal is a usurper and is doomed to have the same done to him. Thus, it could very well be in the best interest for one of those subordinates to make a little deal with PCs to have them do the dirty work of cleaning out a level or two before moving in and taking over.

Hence, from a Scriptural POV, Gygax and Mentzer got it wrong when they had Zuggtmoy bound in the depths of the Temple of Elemental Evil. Zuggtmoy should have made some kind of deal with the various forces of Good that participated in the "great slaughter" of the Temple, killing off Loth or some other demon she needed out of the way so that she could re-establish it once the various rulers who made the deal had passed away. Another option is that it was Iuz who made the deal to get rid of Zuggtmoy.

In other words, the fight versus Chaos will never end until such time that Christ comes again because men are weak in the face of evil and there will always be another evil ready to step in when Orcus eats dirt.

Thursday, July 15, 2021

Scripture & the Megadungeon Part 3: Meditating on Those Who Hate the Light

Probably my all-time favorite illustration of a goblin

The most iconic adversaries for a party of adventurers exploring the first levels of a megadungeon are kobolds, goblins, and orcs. While D&D has always differentiated these as three different types of creatures, an examination of etymology and Tolkien suggest that they are three different names for the same type of creature. The word kobold is a German form of the Latin gobalus both of which come from the Greek κόβαλος. In turn, Tolkien himself suggested that orc and goblin are two different names for the same creature (having used goblin in earlier works for what would later be called orcs).

If one looks at the meaning of κόβαλος and orcneas (a plural of orc used in Beowulf), there is a suggestion that kobolds, goblins, and orcs are all human.

A κόβαλος was an impudent rogue and the adjective κόβαλα had the connotation of knavish trickery. Later it was associated with goblins invoked by rogues. Orcneas is often translated as evil spirit and literally means underworld corpse. It could be argued, then, that kobolds, goblins, and orcs are all varieties of humans who have willingly aligned themselves with Baalzebub, Asmodeus, etc. and have either been transformed or are possessed by demonic powers.

This understanding of these creatures is actually hinted at in the 1e MM:

Orcs dwell in places where sun-light is dim or non-existent, for they hate the light.

This mirrors John’s use of the Light/Dark motif is his Gospel:

And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. — 3:19

Intriguingly, the word translated here as judgement is κρίσις, the root of the English word crisis. While the Greek does have a connotation of trial and judgement, it can also mean decision or choice.

The reasons behind this choice can be gleaned from the polemics of Ezekiel 28 where the King of Tyre is condemned to the pit (v. 8) and is turned to ashes on the earth (v. 18) because he claimed, “I am a god, I sit in the seat of the gods” (v. 2). While it could be claimed that this is directed at an earthly king, the Lament over the King of Tyre in verses 12-19 call him a guardian cherub who was placed on the holy mountain (v. 14, 16). In other words, the King of Tyre is seen as a Baal.

In the Baal Cycle, Baal kills Prince Yam-Nahar and takes his throne as the King of the Gods. Yet, despite (or more accurately because of) his victory, Baal fears Mot, the personification of death:

But take care, divine servants: Do not get too close to Divine Mot, lest he take you like a lamb in his mouth, like a kid, you be crushed in the chasm of his throat. The Divine Lamp, Shapsh, is red; the heavens are weak in the hands of the Beloved, Divine Mot. From across a thousand acres, a myriad of hectares, at the feet of Mot bow down and fall, you shall prostrate yourselves and honor him.

Despite the apparent victory and enthronement of Baal, he has no real power because even he cannot approach the land of the dead without being consumed. He killed in order to gain the throne, which means someone else could do the same to him. Like other hero myths from around the world, the Baal Cycle sees Baal forced to go into the underworld (Mot kills him) and then returning with knowledge that allows him to subjugate death.

Thus, at the heart of the Baal Cycle and the other pagan myths that follow the same pattern, is a desire to overcome death using one’s own power — without God. The polemic found in Ezekiel 28 proclaims the folly of this endeavor and warns:

[you will be] thrust down into the pit, and you shall die the death of the slain in the heart of the seas. (v. 8)
Thus, from a Scriptural view, kobolds, goblins and orcs could be seen as what remain of those who align themselves with Baal and attempt to cheat death. What remains of them are underworld corpses, possessed of evil spirits trying to steal from humanity what once was theirs before they turned their back on the Light and embraced Darkness. It is their former humanity, and the temptation for other humans to cheat death without God, that see them occupying those levels of the megadungeon closest to the surface.

Tuesday, July 13, 2021

Scripture & the Megadungeon Part 2: The Destroyer

The name Asmodeus does not appear in the NT or in the Masoretic text of the OT; however, it does show up in the Septuagint OT in the Book of Tobit:
Sarah, daughter of Raguel...was married to seven husbands, but before they could be with her as a wife, Asmodeus, the evil demon, killed them.
According to the Orthodox Study Bible, the name Ἀσμοδαῖος means "the destroyer" and links this with the description of "the thief" as Christ claims the title of Good Shepherd in the Gospel of John:
The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it abudantly. I am the good shepherd.—10:10
The name Ashmedai appears in the Talmud and has been linked to the Zoroastrian demon of wrath, Aeshma of the Bloody Mace.

Though later Medieval writers would link these names to lust and even the title Prince of Lust, the Book of Tobit does not attribute any special status besides "evil demon" to the name Asmodeus. This bears little resemblance to Gygax's entry on Asmodeus in the 1e MM, with the possible exception of his glowing rod of pure ruby, which might be a play on the bloody mace of Aeshma.

To fully understand the portrayal of Asmodeus in the Book of Tobit in context of the megadungeon, I must first highlight one the main ways Orthodox Christianity is different from both Catholicism and Protestantism. Orthodoxy has always insisted that there is a distinction between the Essence and Energies of God. The word ἐνέργεια (energy) is often translated in English as work, but in many cases is better understood as activity. The activities of God are made manifest in the three persons of God — we experience the energies, or activities, of God personally. 

There is, however, an essential aspect of God which we can never know and which the Fathers of the Church use apophatic language to describe — ineffable, inconceivable, invisible, incomprehensible, etc. This distinction can be illustrated with the 33rd chapter of Exodus where:

The Lord used to speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend. — 33:11

Yet, when Moses, seven verses later, asks to see God's glory, the Lord responds:

You cannot see my face, for man shall not see me and live. — 33:20

These two events are difficult to reconcile unless we acknowledge the Essence/Energy Distinction. Moses is able to encounter the Lord face to face in His energies/activities/person; however, when Moses asks to see the Lord's essence (His glory), the face of God becomes something no man can survive.

For the purposes of this post, however, the most important consequence of the Essence/Energy Distinction is that all the activities of God — Creation, Truth, Life, Love, Hope, Mercy, Forgiveness, Long-suffering, Magnanimity, etc. — are God Himself:

Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. — John 14:6

Death is introduced into creation when Adam eats the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge Good and Evil because he introduces a separation between humanity and Life itself — the energies of God.

This separation also exists in all the fallen angels, also known as demons. They have no access to the energies/activities of God. This is illustrated in the Book of Tobit with Asmodeus. He kills Sarah's husbands before they can consummate the marriage, thus cutting off the co-creative power of the marriage bed. All Asmodeus has power to do is "to steal and kill and destroy."

This all paints a very different picture from the Gygaxian Naturalism found in the 1e MM. Gygax's description of an orc lair would not, and arguably could not, exist:

Orc lairs are underground 75% of the time, in an above ground village 25% of the time. There will always be the following additional orcs when the encounter is in the creatures' lair: a chief and 5-30 bodyguards (AC4) 13-16 hit points, attack as monsters with 3 hit dice and do 2-8 hit points damage), females equal to 50% of the number of males, young equal to 100% of the males.
Pig-faced orcs, along with other hybrid creatures like gnolls, harpies, owlbears, satyrs, etc. are mere manifestations of Chaos "stealing" their appearance from other creatures and are incapable of producing their own offspring.

Asmodeus as depicted in Collin de Plancy's Dictionnaire Infernal.
Notice how he is a hybrid.

Thus, the megadungeon is a manifestation of the fallen nature of Baalzebub, Asmodeus, etc. Whatever order exists within has been stolen from humanity — ancients destroyed by the introduction of the demonic into their cultures. As one goes deeper into the dungeon, this order begins to break down until there is nothing left but the Chaos embodied by caves and caverns.

Another implication is that one of the primary characteristics of the megadungeon is the undead. Having no ability to create life, Chaos must depend upon the bodies of the dead to provide vehicles for their abortive and monstrous attempts at the creative act.

Finally, this also speaks to something early D&D instinctively got right: randomness. Wandering monsters, randomly generated dungeon levels, random treasure, etc. all speak to the Scriptural understanding of the megadungeon far better than Gygaxian Naturalism. In some sense, the only things that should make sense inside a megadungeon are:

  1. Order is something stolen from Law 
  2. Chaos is randomness 
  3. The lower a party goes, the less order and more randomness there are

In this sense, Holmes got it right: he has Wandering Monsters as important features of dungeon exploration along with traps, doors, secret doors, and surprises.

Please note that I am a fan of Gygaxian Naturalism and take great pleasure in creating various ecosystems within a dungeon complex. As fun as creating a dungeon that "makes sense" and is "realistic" can be, it misses the opportunity to have Chaos, Randomness, and Theft the very things that "make sense" of a megadungeon. Besides, what better way can we simulate that "Oh Crap!" moment of the Balrog in the depths of Khazad-dûm?

Tuesday, July 6, 2021

Scripture & the Megadungeon Part 1: Lord of the Flies

As you might recall from my last post, the name Baal is a generic title for a local pagan god which can be translated as “lord.” This name actually makes an appearance in the 1e MM:

Lord of the Flies
The sixth and seventh planes of Hell, Malbolge and Maladomini respectively, are ruled by Baalzebul, “Lord of the Flies” (“lies”?) He is an arch-devil of great power, second only to Asmodeus. Malbolge is a black stone plane, filled with stinking vapors, smokes, fire pits, and huge caves and caverns. Maladomini is similar, but there will be found the moated castles of the malebranche and the great fortress of Baalzebul.
As used in the NT, Baalzebul is called the ἄρχων of the demons:
Now when the Pharisees heard it they said, “It is only by Baalzebul, the ruler of demons, that this man casts out demons.” — Matthew 12:24

Some English translations will render this as “prince” rather than “ruler,” but the word ἄρχων is the root for the English prefix arch- as in archduke and archenemy. Thus, it suggests a primacy not found in the word “prince.” In other words, this is a title for Satan: 

Knowing their thoughts, he said to them, “Every kingdom divided against itself is laid waste, and no city or house divided against itself will stand; and if Satan casts out Satan, he is divided against himself; how then will his kingdom stand?”— Matthew 12:25-26

Thus, Gygax gets it wrong when he labels Baalzebul as the second most powerful devil behind Asmodeus (which we will get to later in this series). He also gets the meaning of the name wrong (though he is, in spirit, correct in labelling him as the Lord of Lies).

Baal-zebul can roughly be translated as “high lord Baal” which, is in turn, a rough duplicate of Most High God (ὁ θεὸς ὁ ὕψιστος). Given that, according to the Baal Cycle, it is Yam-Nahar that is made king of the gods by El and not Baal, this title is the title of a usurper. This is where the name "Lord of the Flies" comes from.

The OT writer of 4 Kings (2 Kings) could not bring themselves to call Baalzebul by his proper name:

Now Ahaziah ... lay sick; so he sent messengers, telling them, “Go, inquire of Baal-zebub, the god of Ekron, whether I shall recover from this sickness.” — 4 Kings (2 Kings) 1:2

Baal-zebub is a term of mockery better understood as "lord of the place of flies" — a pile of dung. Anyone claiming that Jews and Christians aren't allowed to name-call hasn't read Scripture (or the Fathers, who could throw down with the best of them). This role of usurper is confirmed in Isaiah:

How you are fallen from heaven, O Day Star, son of Dawn! How you are cut down to the ground, you who laid the nations low! You said in your heart, ‘I will ascend to heaven; above the stars of God I will set my throne on high; I will sit on the mount of assembly in the far north; I will ascend above the heights of the clouds, I will make myself like the Most High.’ But you are brought down to Sheol, to the depths of the Pit. — 14:12-15
This is where Gygax’s description of Baalzebul’s domain is strikingly accurate. Making good use of the prefix mal- (from the Latin male, meaning badly), Gygax calls the sixth plane of hell Malbolge (bölge in Turkish means region), the seventh Maladomini (where domini imitates the Latin for domain) and the various moated castles under Baalzebul’s control malebranche (branche in German referring to branch, as in a part of a business).

Ezekiel informs us that Baalzebul was cast down to the earth (28:17), and in the cosmology of the OT has Sheol under the earth. Therefore, it is safe to depict the realm of the Lord of the Flies as the megadungeon suggested in Holmes:

Note that the 6th level can be reached via The Pit  and the 7th has a moated castle

Thus, the Megadungeon, from a Christian POV, is the personification of Chaos (another way to express Baalzebul’s domain) sinking its stinking claws into God’s domain. It is the adventurer’s job, therefore, to beat it back down into the depths of Sheol.

Wednesday, June 30, 2021

Scripture and Deities & Demigods

For many years now, I have pointed out that D&D's explicit rendering of the various gods of pagan pantheons into creatures and monsters by giving them hit points and other stats in Supplement IV: Gods, Demi-Gods & Heroes as well as the various editions of Deities and Demigods mirrors the Christian world-view. Up to this point, however, I have largely used inferences and implications based on the pre-suppositions of Orthodox Christianity. Recently, I have been reading The Religion of the Apostles: Orthodox Christianity in the First Century by Fr. Stephen De Young, a book I highly recommend to anyone, especially non-Orthodox and non-Christian. 

I can now express my opinion of Supplement IV: Gods, Demi-Gods & Heroes and Deities and Demigods with Scripture.

Before we get to quoting the Good Book, however, we need to take a look at the opening lines of what is known as The Baal Cycle — an Ugaritic cycle of stories about the Canaanite god Baʿal that is approximately contemporaneous to events of the Old Testament:
Now Mighty Baal, son of Dagon, desired the kingship of the Gods. He contended with Prince Yam-Nahar, the Son of El. But Kindly El, Father Shunem, decided the case in favour of His son; He gave the kingship to Prince Yam. He gave the power to Judge Nahar.
Note that there are three characters here: Baal, who wants to be king over the gods, El (the Father), who has the power to grant this kingship, and his son Prince Yam-Nahar who is made king by El. 

Note also the meaning of the three names: 
  • El is a generic term for god in the Semitic languages, including Hebrew. The root of Elohim is El- and the various angelic names, such as Michael, Gabriel, Uriel, etc., all end in -el because they are named after an attribute of god — Michael means "Who is like unto God," for example. 
  • Yam-Nahar means "Judge of the River" and is an 'ilhm, or son of El or simply "god." It is the root of the second part of the name Elohim pluralized. In other words, the name Elohim can be translated as "God-gods" — one of the ways God has revealed Himself as a Trinity. 
  • Baal means "lord" and is a title and honorific of local pagan gods, especially the fertility god Hadad. 
This all parallels with Deuteronomy:
When the Most High gave to the nations their inheritance, when he divided mankind, he fixed the borders of the peoples according to the number of the sons of God. — 32:8
In other words, El — the Most High God — divided humanity into nations and set up 'ilhm to watch over each nation. These sons of God, however, rebelled and took upon themselves the worship due only to the Most High God:
God stood in the assembly of gods; He judges in the midst of gods saying, "How long will you judge unjustly, and favor the persons of sinners?" — Psalm 82 (81 LXX)
The one who is given kingship and who judges is El's Son:
The court was in session, and the books were opened...and behold, One like the Son of Man was coming with the clouds of heaven, until He came to the Ancient of Days and approached Him. Then dominion, honor, and the kingdom were given to Him — Daniel 7:10, 13-14.
The title Son of Man is the one Christ most often uses to refer to Himself. Thus, Scripture acknowledges the existence of these pagan gods who are part of a divine council overseen by Christ in a position granted by the Father. These pagan gods, however, are mere creatures who rebelled against God the Father and turned their back on their original mission of watching over the nations. 

Now we come to the crux of this whole argument. Psalm 82(81) declares to these gods their fate:
I say, "You are gods, sons of the Most High, all of you; nevertheless, you shall die like men, and fall like any prince."
There you have it. The pagan gods are not only creatures, but doomed to die like any man. Thus, in terms of D&D, they have hit points and stats like any other monster. To put it another way, PCs are free to try to be the instruments of Christ's judgement and kill the gods.

Monday, June 21, 2021

Skylin (Dogfolk) Race-as-Class for BX

Icon of St. Christopher with the head of a dog


Prime Requisite: CON
Requirements: DEX 9
Hit Dice: d8
Maximum Level: 12

It is said that during one of the great beastmen incursions, there was a cleric whose face was so disfugured that he was often mistaken for a beastman himself. He took it as a sign that he should proselytize the faith to the beastmen. Despite the seeming foolishness of the endeavor, he did mange to convert a large number of what are derogatorily known as dogfolk. They call themselves Skylin, which means "loyal ones" in their own language (a dialect of gnollish). The name is apt, since Skylin are loyal to a fault. To this day, they honor the disfigured cleric as Theophoros — "The one who carries God."

  • Combat: Skylin may use any armor, shield, and weapon and use the combat and saving throw tables of fighters
  • Bite: Skylin are always considered to be armed and can bite for 1d4 damage
  • Dark Vision: Skylin have 60 ft. of infravison
  • Tracking: Skylin are gifted trackers and have a 4 in 6 chance of tracking a quarry by scent
  • Dog-like Appearance: Due to their beastman origins, Skylin have a hard time recruiting human henchman — all attempts are made at -1 reaction and human henchmen will have a -1 morale penalty
  • Loyalty: Skylin characters must pledge themselves to a cause, nation, or leader before they can advance to 3rd level. Once chosen, the Skylin will never waiver from that pledge, even if it means death
  • Languages: Skylin can speak common and gnollish
  • Stonghold: Upon reaching 9th level, a Skylin may build a stronghold and attempt to establish a Skylin clan. The stronghold may be above or below ground.
XP Progression:
Level 2: 1,800
Level 3: 3,600
Level 4: 7,200
Level 5: 14,400
Level 6: 28,800
Level 7: 57,600
Level 8: 108,000
Level 9: 228,000
Level 10:348,000
Level 11: 468,000
Level 12: 588,000

Sunday, May 23, 2021

Orcs and the One and the Many

Over on BX Blackrazor, JB is meditating on the D&D trope of killing gods. In the comments, I pointed out that the game has been giving gods Hit Points since 1976 and the publication of Supplement IV: Gods, Demi-Gods, and Heroes. I also tried to explain why I (as a Christian) don’t really have a problem with giving gods Hit Points. 

This struck off a conversation that I think deserves its own post, because I make some hefty claims that need their own space to be meditated on and discussed. The most important (and probably controversial) claim is that reality as we experience cannot be fully explained by anything other than the Christianity of the Early Church (by which I roughly mean the first millennia or so). At the core of my argument is a problem that has confounded philosophers since the ancients first tried to understand reality. It is called the Problem of the One and Many. To illustrate this, I present to you this illustration of an orc:

But, Padre, you say, that is not an orc, it’s an owlbear! To which I respond: how do you know?

This may seem an idle question, because it should be obvious that the above illustration is, in fact, an owlbear and not an orc. Even so, in order for us to be able to make that distinction two things need to be very real: owlbears and orcs.

As we all know, however, owlbears and orcs are not real — outside of our imagination. Yet, there exists something that allows us to not only imagine these non-existent creatures but to recognize something we have never before encountered as one of these imaginary creatures. To say that “something” is “the brain,” or “chemicals,” or “an electrical current in our nervous system” side-steps the real issue:

You have very likely never seen the above illustration. I know, because I am the one who drew it and this is the first time I have ever shared it. This new empirical experience that you have just had of seeing this illustration for the first time has triggered an interaction with an interpretive framework that not only allows you to understand that you are looking at an owlbear, but also allows everybody else to see an owlbear despite being potentially thousands of miles apart and growing up in completely different circumstances in terms of language, culture, and beliefs. If we didn’t have this nigh-universal interpretive framework, this brand new experience of seeing my illustration could not result in you seeing an owlbear. It would just be light.

And finally, we come to the crux of the problem:

This illustration is unique. It is its own particular illustration by yours truly. At the same time, it is also an owlbear — it shares the nature of owlbear-ness that all owlbears do. In other words, it is one and it is many. Ancient philosophers wrestled to explain how it is that everything is both one and many at the same time. We must wrestle with it because it is part of reality. I am Fr. Dave and I am a human being. Without the one and the many we would not be able to function in the world. We would have no idea how to interpret the data coming in through our senses.

Materialism does not do an adequate job of explaining the reality of the one and the many, because it cannot merely come down to physical, material things. Owlbears aren’t material, physical things, after all. Yet they are real.

In contrast, it logically follows that a God that is both one and three, who created humanity according to His image and likeness, and, as Paul says in Romans 1:20, reveals his eternal power and divine nature in the things that have been made, would create a world where everything would demonstrate both His oneness and his multiplicity.

In other words, our modern, secular, materialist explanation of the world as we know it, really doesn’t explain the world as we know it; however, ancient Christianity does.

Sunday, May 2, 2021

Christ is Risen!

Though You went down into the tomb, O Immortal One, yet You brought down the dominion of Hades; and You rose as the victor, O Christ our God; and You called out "Rejoice" to the Myrrh-bearing women, and gave peace to Your Apostles, O Lord who to the fallen grant resurrection. — Kontakion of Pascha

Friday, April 9, 2021

How to Write Strong Women Characters Pt. 2

The Magnificat

My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior. For He has regarded the lowly state of His maidservant; for behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed. For He who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is His name. And His mercy is on those who fear Him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with His arm; He has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts. He has put down the mighty from their thrones, and exalted the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich He has sent away empty. He has helped His servant Israel, in remembrance of His mercy, as He spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his seed forever. —Luke 1:47-55
In my last post, I gave a recent positive example of strong women characters; however, these women were playing roles normally filled by men — professional wrestlers. I do not want to take anything away from women who want to excel in those types of rolls; however, it is indicative of our current culture that the best positive example of strong women I could find is were women are exhibiting masculine strength. As a consequence, I am inclined to go back to the greatest story of all time to find the archetype of feminine strength: the Virgin Mary and the Mother of our God. I lift her up not only because of her prophecy from the Gospel of St. Luke — every generation will call me blessed — but because Orthodox Christianity sees her as the best of humanity. In our churches, she sits at the right hand of Christ on the iconostasis and we sing of her almost every day:
Greater in honor than the Cherubim, and in glory greater beyond compare than the Seraphim; you without corruption gave birth to God the Word, and are truly Theotokos. You do we magnify.
No other saint has more hymns sung in their honor than the Virgin Mary, who has been given the title Theotokos — the Mother of God.

Of course, from the perspective of modern feminism, we run into a problem with the virtues that this archetype champions — Chastity and Motherhood. I mention feminism specifically because phrases such as "because it's time" and "young white men have been pandered to" find their source in that philosophy. In addition, our current cultural landscape celebrates, in the name of feminism, the antithesis of Chastity and Motherhood — Promiscuity and Abortion — as virtues.

Couched in the language of empowerment, we have been told that women armed with birth control can stand on equal footing with men in their ability to have sex without consequence and with that most extreme form of birth control options, abortion, can pursue careers over families. This is shouted to the rooftops despite growing evidence that women are less and less happy the further away from the Archetype of the Virgin Mary and Mother of God we get.

Allow me a moment to critically examine what our modern culture calls "empowerment." Promiscuity is never risk-free. There is no type of birth-control that is 100% effective outside of abstinence. Additionally, multiple partners increases the chance of disease. Regardless of all the medical advances we have made, women are still taking the greater risk when engaged in promiscuous behavior.

This risk becomes even greater when coupled with the denigration of men. We have an entire generation of young men that have been told that they are the source of evil in the world, that their natural behavior towards women is hateful, and have been accused of rape for engaging in consensual sex. In other words, we have a culture that expects women to have a lot of sex and for men to behave badly. We live in an upside down world where men are interested in long-term monogamous relationships and women are interested in multiple partners. Given this reality, the type of man who would willingly participate in the promiscuity of women is not the type of man a women is safe to be promiscuous with.

As much as conservatives balk at the existence of rape culture, the #metoo movement has clearly demonstrated that a rape culture does exist in the very institutions that promote the idea: Hollywood, the Media, and other forms of Entertainment. For decades, men who see women as mere objects to use for their own desires have been able to maintain their positions of power by selling us the feminist ideal of female empowerment.

In contrast, Chastity actually empowers women to manipulate the behavior of men. It is quite simple: you want a piece of this? then live up to what I want in a man and commit to being that man for the rest of your life.

Our current culture celebrates abortion as a positive experience. All of the troubles and sacrifices necessary to see a pregnancy through are gone in an instant. What the brochure and abortion clinics across the country fail to mention is that there are consequences. Killing your own child in the womb can and does have long term physical and mental repercussions. Once done, it can never be taken back.

While Motherhood does, in fact, require sacrifice and a radical shift in life priorities, it also is a source of feminine power. Nothing motivates like trying to do your best for your children. Everyone knows not to mess with a mother bear, the same can be said of a mother trying to protect her children. In addition, throughout the ages, women have had access to political power through their children. The term Queen Mother exists for a reason. Let me give an example from Church history:

In the Orthodox Church, we celebrate Sts. Irene and Theodora as critical players in the defeat of Iconoclasm. Both acted as regents for their sons. Both sons were children when they were crowned Emperor. Both women were married to Iconoclasts. Both lovingly bided their time knowing that they would be able to effect change through their children.

While it is true that women can (and even should) excel in professions normally dominated by men (as can men excel in professions normally dominated by women), these are exceptions. While female characters that succeed through masculine characteristics can and do work, the number of good stories that can be told are limited. This can be seen in the failures of modern cinema to shoehorn women into normally masculine roles.

If we are truly interested in strong women and if we are truly interested in telling stories about strong women, I would propose that we embrace the archetype personified by the Virgin Mary. Tell stories where Chastity and Motherhood are not only embraced, but celebrated.

Thursday, April 8, 2021

How to Write Strong Women Characters

Following my last post, I wanted to give a positive example of good storytelling using female characters, since the comment section included a long discussion about turning Dr. Who into a woman. I wanted my example to be current, since my attempts at pointing out extremely well written women in sci-fi/fantasy that can be found prior to our current cultural malaise doesn’t seem to matter. Unfortunately, that meant going to a genre outside my bailiwick: professional wrestling.

There are several things in my life that I personally do not necessarily like and do not go out of my way to watch or participate in, but I do enjoy watching others who do love these things. For example, I love watching baseball fanatics geek out over baseball. I enjoy watching Trekkies being Trekkies. Ever since I became aware of professional wresting (I believe it was Cyndi Lauper’s music video for “The Goonies ‘r’ Good Enough”) I have enjoyed listening to people who wax poetic about the stories professional wrestlers portray inside and outside the ring.

Last month, the wrestling promotion AEW televised a non-sanctioned, lights-out match between the wrestlers Britt Baker D.M.D and Thunder Rosa. For those unfamiliar, that is a match where pretty much anything is allowed: chairs, tables, ladders, weapons, tacks, etc. It was a brutal affair that ended a rivalry that had gone on for several months.

Britt Baker is a home-grown wrestler for AEW. She has been the face of the women’s division since AEW started its Dynamite TV show on TNT. This has not always been a good thing. Initially, she was a bouncy, bubbly character that nobody really liked. So, she changed course and made a heel turn. This means she became one of the bad guys. It transformed her character and her career. Fans loved it.

At the same time, fans were also critical of the women’s division as a whole because it wasn’t producing the kind of stories and matches that the men’s division was (which are some of the best in pro wrestling today). In order to address this situation, AEW brought in Thunder Rosa, who came into the promotion with the express purpose of elevating the quality of women’s wrestling in AEW.

At the time, Thunder Rosa was the NWA Women’s Champion. In other words, she was not only an outsider, but an outsider who was under contract with another promotion. Her presence was a direct challenge to the entire women’s division of AEW and to Britt Baker in particular. Thus, these two were on a collision course.

The two clashed in several matches, interfered with each other when they weren’t wrestling each other and cost each other championships. The rivalry was white hot and when non-champion stories like this are told, the best ones culminate in extreme matches like the one televised last month.

One of the key things to understand about this match is that as a non-sanctioned, lights-out match it had to be the last match of the night. All of the “real” matches that counted for purposes of wins and losses were done. Due to this fact, it was the Main Event of the show. AEW promoted this. It promoted the extreme nature of the scheduled match. It heightened expectation due to its extreme nature and its position on the show. Not only did this match meet and exceed these expectations, but fans immediately started making the claim that this was one of the best matches in AEW history, let alone the best ever women’s match.

Incidentally, this was the first time a women's match had ever been the Main Event in AEW; however, this was not part of the story. Indeed, it was very important that it was not part of the story. Had this been promoted as the first women’s Main Event in AEW history, it would have irreparably damaged everything these two women had been doing over the months they were working together.

Britt Baker and Thunder Rosa pushed each other and themselves to their limits. They earned this spot through their wrestling, through their character work, and through their storytelling. Had they been just the first women’s Main Event in AEW history all of that hard work would have been rendered meaningless. They wouldn’t have earned the match because their work, their characters, and their storytelling, they would have been given the match because of an immutable characteristic they had no real control over: the fact that they are women.

When we, as a culture, promote anyone simply because of an immutable characteristic, we diminish and dehumanize them. Nothing that they personally accomplish means anything because we are promoting the idea that the only reason that have what they have is due to something they didn’t do or choose.

Had AEW screamed to the rafters that Britt Baker D.M.D vs Thunder Rosa was the first women’s Main Event, no one would have had the expectations that they had for this match. Necessarily, expectations would have been lowered because these women would not have earned the position they had due to their hard work. They would have been given the position simply because they are women. As a consequence, the fact that Britt Baker and Thunder Rosa exceeded these lowered exceptions wouldn’t have meant nearly as much. In fact, I don’t think the match would have been as great as it was because the pressure these two would have had to perform under would also have been much less.

Instead, AEW chose to let these two women be wrestlers instead of just women. They let these two characters shine rather than being just women. They expected these two women to excel at their art rather than settling on being just women. As a consequence, both are superstars beloved by wrestling fans and images from this match will be remembered in wrestling lore for generations to come.

In other words, if you want to make Dr. Who a woman “because it’s time” or “because young white men have been pandered to” you will fail. If, however, you write a story where a female Dr. Who or a female lead in the Dr. Who series makes sense in context of the show and its history and is given an opportunity to earn their spot in Dr. Who lore, you have a chance of telling one of the greatest Dr. Who stories in the series history.

So, stop writing stories “because it’s time” and start writing stories where characters earn everything that they have, like Britt Baker D.M.D and Thunder Rosa.

Friday, March 26, 2021

Why Star Wars, etc. Now S*cks

I was one of those kids who saw Star Wars (before it was dubbed A New Hope) in the theater. I was doomed to be a sci-fi/fantasy fan for the rest of my life. I began to buy comic books. I found Dr. Who on my local PBS. My mom brought home the Holmes Basic Box set. I tried reading the Lord of the Rings and found I could scratch my fantasy itch elsewhere. I even tolerated watching Star Trek with my Trekkie friends. Though for many years my entertainment dollar has rarely gone towards anything beyond RPGs and war games, I am still a fan at heart and hope that some day there is a franchise out there that I will find worthy of my time and my dollar.

Unfortunately, companies like WotC, Disney, WB, Paramount, etc. have all decided that I am toxic and whatever is the most recent flavor of -ist this week. I want Star Wars, Marvel, DC, and even Star Trek to be good; however, I don’t just think they won’t be anytime soon, I know they won’t be.

In the past, I have critiqued various movies and shows for abandoning the Divine in their story telling. God is the first storyteller. In the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament quoted by the writers of the New Testament and the oldest version of the OT we have today, the verb in the first sentence in Scripture (In the beginning God created) has the same root as poetry. This version of to create is only used when in association with God, and he creates (makes poetry) through speaking, “Let there be light.” Thus, just as all creation was doomed to decay and death by humanity turning its back on God, stories are doomed to meaningless drivel when the storyteller turns their back on the source of all stories.

While I still stand by this critique, there is another level of horrid storytelling that has been cropping up recently that I think needs to be addressed because it goes beyond turning its back on God and turns its back on the human person. Let me explain.

Reality can be broken up into two categories: the general and the particular. For example, I am using a computer in order to write this post. Some portion of those who are reading this post will also be using a computer to do so. While the term “computer” helpfully describes all of these devices, I am using a particular computer and the reader is using another particular computer. All computers = the general; my computer = the particular.

The crux of my critique depends on the fact the human beings always experience the particular and never experience the general. Whenever I encounter “computer” in my life, it is always a particular computer. The general “computer” is an immaterial concept that, although outside the particular experience of human beings, is nonetheless very real. The general allow us to make sense of the particular. Without the general, our empirical experience of the world would be a chaotic string of ever-changing data with no basis for interpretation or understanding.

From a Christian POV, this is how we experience and understand the Trinity. The general is God and the particular is the persons of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. It is why Christ became a human being — so that we can intimately know God in the particular.

The reason story telling in the present is so awful is that the characters that occupy our stories are the general instead of the particular. Let me illustrate this my favorite literary inspiration for the Thief class — Bilbo Baggins. In JRR Tolkien’s works, Bilbo Baggins is important because he is a particular hobbit with individual quirks, strengths, weaknesses, and interests that qualify him to be the burglar that Gandalf chooses for the purpose of recovering what was lost to the dragon Smaug. If The Hobbit were written by today’s crop of storytellers, Gandalf would have chosen Bilbo because he is a hobbit and no other reason.

Characters today are largely just a collection of general categories based on immutable characteristics. While I acknowledge the reality of bigotry in the world — there is no question that bigotry exists and affects people on a regular basis — none of us have ever experienced “white,” “black,” or whatever category is fashionable in the present moment. We have, however, experienced particular human persons that have these immutable characteristics.

Herein is the insidious nature of the kind of storytelling we see in today’s popular culture, and why it is so awful. Characters are no longer human persons. They are no longer unique, irreplaceable, and valuable individuals. Characters are merely categories. As individual persons, they have no value because they can be replaced by another character from the same general category.

This type of storytelling can only produce uninteresting and valueless stories because the individual characters that occupy these stories have no intrinsic value in their particularity. As consumers, it becomes increasingly difficult to care about these stories because there is no particular to encounter — these stories deny us the very basic human experience of the particular that is our reality.

This also explains why it is so easy to label fans who demand the particular as toxic and -ists of various flavors. We are denying and criticizing the immutable characteristic — the general category — of the character. Since there is no particular and only the general, we must therefore be toxic and -ist.

All of this dehumanizes everybody. History has shown again and again that when we dehumanize the other, nothing good follows.