Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Under Portown: Factions

It is an odd experience talking with these city dwellers. Whether they speak the truth or not, they always have another hidden goal when they speak to anyone. — The Journal of Sho Zo-ton from Afar
From the get go I need to provide some links, because when I do thought experiments like Under Portown I like to heavily lean on random tables. The tables that I used here were provided by one of my all-time favorite tomes produced in this Golden Age of RPGs, The Tome of Adventure Design published by Frog God Games as well as the excellent Holmes Ref 2.0 produced by Zenopus Archives.

Since the start of this whole thought experiment, I wanted my own version of the Homes Sample Dungeon to have factions vying for control of the Dungeon and the powerful magics that can be found therein. Rather than choose these factions, I decided to roll them up on the monster table in Holmes Ref 2.0 and came up with these:

  • Troglodytes
  • Ghouls
  • Wererats

In order to make sense of this, I decided to root these three factions in the implied ancient civilization/classical civilization/current civilization pre-history of Holmes Basic. In other words, one of these groups represents the degenerate remnants of the ancient civilization, one represents either an actual remnant or degenerate remnant of the classical civilization and the last is simply a threat that exists to the current civilization.

Given that there is a place on Cook’s map of the Known World called “Wereskalot” and it is in relative close proximity to where I place Portown in the Known World, it makes sense that the current threat could easily be represented by the Wererats.

I was actually thrilled that troglodytes came up, because I think they are one of those under-utilized monsters that can have a lot of interesting background noise around them. Normally, I’d be inclined to use them as a stand-in for ancients given their underground habitat, but in this case I am more inclined to use them as degenerates from the classical civilization due to the fact that Holmes seems to indicate that this civilization was one that rose up to free dragons, giants etc. from the ancients. As remnants of the classical civilization, they are exploring Under Portown to find ancient magics to help bring Portown to its knees.

To boot, Ghouls seem to be a great way to keep the ancient civilization ticking over time given that undeath can be seen as a way of cheating death. This could be especially creepy if ghouls are understood to be intelligent rather than the best D&D representation of the modern zombie as depicted in a George Romero film (may he rest in peace). Given that ghasts do not appear in either Holmes or Cook, I will give myself the creative freedom to bestow that ghastly intelligence upon these ghouls.

Having assigned these roles to the inhabitants of Under Portown, I now need to define some factions within the City itself. The major ones are represented by the following personalities:

  • Lord Fenclaro the Quiet: the current resident of the Lord’s Mense and de facto leader of Portown. He is not seen much in public. Most of his dealings are behind closed doors and there is a rumor that much of his time is used researching some strange magical artifact left to him by his grandfather.
  • Drenaboten the Peculiar: this foppish merchant is actually an agent of the Black Eagle Barony. His primary role is to launder money through legitimate business ventures gained by the Barony’s illegitimate support of the slave trade, the Thieves’ Guild and various bandits and pirates.
  • Drebb the Daring: this merchant is better known for his gambling habits and his penchant for insuring some of the more reckless ventures of ship captains going north (which somehow succeed more often than not). He is actually an agent of the Grand Duchy. While he uses his gambling habits as a cover to root out information on the Barony’s unsavory activities, he has no qualms about starting rumors himself to further tarnish the reputation of the Baron.
  • Haque the Foul: this shadowy persona is more of a title than a person. It is given to the current leader of the Thieves’ Guild. Recently, that position has been taken over by a wererat with the goal of furthering the reputation of Wereskalot as a major power player in the region. He is also coordinating with the wererats currently exploring/controlling Under Portown.
  • Endbruteth the Collector: as the head of the University of Portown, he is considered too young to be the curmudgeon he appears to be. The moniker “the Collector” is an inside joke with more than one meaning. He does collect oddities that are oft considered junk by others and he has enough charisma to recruit some of the best mages and scholars from around the world. The real reason for moniker, however, is that he has led the Wizard’s Guild on a secret purge that hunts down and kills anyone or any group that gets too interested in discovering the secrets of Under Portown.
  • Tengahn the Mutable: this gaunt but otherwise nondescript merchant is prone to support whichever faction will pay him the most. In truth, he is a ghoul who seeks simply to wreck as much havoc and chaos upon the living that he can, all the while hunting for the weak and vulnerable to have for dinner (literally) with his fellow ghouls.

Finally, there is a heavy reliance in Portown upon mercenaries for personal protection, the protection of goods coming in and out of the city as well as for the defense of the city itself. Some of the more prominent of these companies are:

  • The Imperial Lions (employed by Lord Fenclaro)
  • The Nameless (thought to be employed by the Wizard’s Guild)
  • The Crimson Legion (known to work with Drebb the Daring)
  • The Sovnya Riders
  • The Ulfberht Blades
  • The Pernach Breakers

Monday, July 17, 2017

Meditating on Firearms in D&D

So, following up on my recent thoughts about firearms, here are some simple concepts that could accompany the idea that the main defense against firearms is not armor but saving throws.

All firearms have three ranges:

  • Short: full damage, save for half-damage
  • Medium: full damage, save for no damage
  • Long: half-damage, save for no damage

Cover (and the Referee gets to decide what is Cover and what is not) makes all ranges into Long Range.

Therefore, there are two main ways to modify how aspects of a gun function: adjust the Range or adjust Cover. This allows a huge variety of mechanical ways to express various “tech-levels,” barrel lengths, calibers, accessaries, etc. For example:

  • Shortening or lengthening ranges is an easy way to express the relative effectiveness of a gun. A muzzle-loader would have a much smaller range increments than a 21st century sniper rifle.
  • Different saving throws (if one uses the saving throws from B/X, LL etc. instead of the “one-size fits all” approach of S&W) can be assigned to different calibers. For example: "Poison or Death" could be used for the smaller end (.32 or 9mm) and "Breath Attacks" could be used for the higher end (.50 cal) and/or shot guns.
  • Armor Piercing rounds could reduce Cover to Medium Range
  • Scopes could reduce ranges to Short and Medium (Medium = Short, Long = Medium)
  • Sci-fi weapons like plasma guns could only have a Short Range (however long the Referee wanted the range of a plasma gun to be).
  • etc.

Let the world building commence!

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Saintly Saturday: St. Vladimir, Equal-to-the-Apostles of Kiev

Today is the Feast of St. Vladimir of Kiev who is given the moniker Equal-to-the-Apostles, which is given to those saints that aren’t normally seen as apostles (such as monarchs and women), but whose life declared the Gospel of Christ in such a way that led many to baptism. In the case of St. Vladimir, the Rus followed their monarch to Christianity.

Born Volodimir and a pagan, St. Vladimir was not unfamiliar with Christianity as the grandson of St. Olga. Nevertheless, there are many histories of how brutal Volodimir was. For nine years he reigned in Kiev before he got involved in a civil war within the Byzantine Empire. He came out of that experience as a baptized Christian, with a marriage to the Emperor’s Daughter Anna and with the title Tsar (meaning Caesar).

Nonetheless, he diligently spread the Christian faith and ordered idols (which he had made of the pagan gods he once worshipped) scourged, dragged through the city and thrown into the Dnieper River. The history of the Russian people as Orthodox Christians in many ways begins with St. Vladimir. He died from illness in A.D. 1015.


One of the primary gods that Volodimir famously made an idol of silver and gold for (one which he shortly thereafter destroyed) depicted what could crudely be described as the Slavic version of Thor — Perun. As the highest god in the Slavic pantheon, Perun was understood to be the god of thunder and lightening. Unlike Thor, however, he did not have a slavic version of Mjolnir. Rather, he had a bow with which he shot “thunderbolt stones” which could be found buried in the earth. Weapons and devices made of these thunderbolt stones were believed to provide protection from various calamities such as bad luck, evil magic, disease and (of course) lightening.

Accepting the premise that Perun was, in fact, just an idol made by human beings to explain natural phenomena, these “thunderbolt stones” must have a different origin. Indeed, according to modern science, they are fulgurites and belemnites. In context of a FRPG, this opens up the door to some good old fashioned science fiction/fantasy mash-up world-building. In ancient times, for example, there could have been a massive war between aliens and what are popularly known as “the ancients.” Artifacts from this era litter the land. One could even tie in the existence of magic to this event: thunderbolt stones are the source of all arcane magic in the world.

This, of course, leads to the possibility of introducing things like “Thunderbolt Guns” into the game. As I have mused in the past, D&D doesn’t do firearms very well. This is because its combat premise (better armor makes you harder “to hit”) does not reflect what happened historically once firearms are introduced. The logic of D&D would assume that plate mail would still be a viable option for soldiers on the battlefield because they wouldn’t get hit as often with bullets as someone who was simply wearing combat fatigues.

I have yet to see any house rule that allows for guns that completely satisfies me. I did play test the Leather = DR1, Chain = DR2 and Plate = DR3 where guns get to ignore the DR. It just didn’t flow like I hoped it would. The implied tactical choice wasn’t as interesting as I hoped and in the end the extra mechanic just slowed things down enough that I am not really interested in playing with that house rule any more.

Thus, I am still interested to see if there is a simple system that can help introduce guns into D&D that can easily emulate the tactical realities of the 18th century when armor had mostly disappeared from the battlefield because firearms happened.

The idea of Thunderbolt Stones being the source of arcane magic in a FRPG world, the old musings of Aos at The Metal Earth as well as my recent delving into the world of Swords & Wizardry Light got me thinking on a completely different tangent: why not treat firearms like fireballs?

Armor in all its forms is ineffectual against guns. Thus, on average, someone using a gun only needs to hit an AC 9 to hit your average guy clad in plate mail; however, just like when that same plate mail-clad guy gets hit with a fireball or dragon’s breath or a charm person spell, he gets a saving throw. Depending upon the type, range and caliber of the weapon this save could be for half-damage or no damage at all. For example, due to the inaccuracy of muzzle-loaded firearms, anything beyond point blank range might be a save for no damage, but anything close-up would at least do half.

I think this ticks all the boxes for me: it doesn’t radically mess with the D&D combat system, it uses extant mechanics everyone is familiar with, it doesn’t over power guns and yet emulates why on a field full of guns no one bothers to wear any armor.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Under Portown: Placing Urban Main Features

After seeing the sheer variety of creature and costume that crawl through this stinking labyrinth of a city, I am beginning to put credence to the rumors that those I seek can be found here.
— The Journal of Sho Zo-ton from Afar
After mapping out the general layout of Portown, it is now time to start placing the Main Features of each hex. What I really like about this approach is that it can accommodate both concrete and abstract ideas. For example, take a look at the Main Features of hexes 1 and 2:

The Port

  1. Port Master (3 in 6)
  2. Northbound Ship (3 in 6)*
  3. Southbound Ship (2 in 6)*
  4. Guard Towers (2 in 6)‡
  5. Smuggler’s Alley (1 in 6)
  6. Lost
* 2 in 6 chance that the ship has a non-human crew; roll a d6: 1-3 = elf, 4-5 = dwarf, 6 = humanoid
‡ Roll a d6; 1-3 = West Tower, 4-6 = East Tower

Olde Town

  1. The Insurance House (3 in 6) — a meeting place where merchants can buy insurance on their shipments north in case of loss due to pirates, monsters or natural disaster.
  2. The Inklings Club & Collectibles (3 in 6) — a high-end gentlemen’s club where culture from around the world is discussed and experienced. Membership requires a donation of a rare and valuable object that then becomes part of the club’s collection.
  3. The Bathhouse (2 in 6) — a remnant from when the Classical Civilization dominated the area. It is a spa with both salt and fresh water baths and servants that are paid not only for their massages, but for their silence. Many a political, business and criminal agreement is rumored to have been brokered within its walls.
  4. The Ancient Corner Stone (2 in 6) — this strange stone is covered in runes from a long lost language, believed to have been used by the ancients. Scholars agree that it simply states the founding of a small colony. Rumors speak of something far more sinister.
  5. Nor’Ar the Alchemist (1 in 6) — Nor’Ar is a famed alchemist capable of creating rare and wondrous potions; however, he is very exclusive and expensive.
  6. Lost

As is plain, exploring the Port is a far more abstract and dynamic experience than exploring Olde Town. This, of course, is accomplished by placing abstract Main Features in The Port hex and very concrete Main Features in the Olde Town hex. Thus, not only does each area have its own unique feel, but the character of the entire city begins to take shape.

Note how easy this all is: I merely need a small Random Table with five entries with the sixth option of “Lost” to get to a roll of d6.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Under Portown: A Map of Portown

When looking at the description of Portown as presented in Holmes, there are only a couple of features that are explicitly known:

  • The ruins of the Tower of Zenopus are west of town sitting on top of a hill overlooking some sea cliffs and next to a graveyard.
  • Other Magic-users have moved to town.
  • Portown is a small city, but busy being a hub where caravans deliver goods to ships that venture into hostile, pirate-infested waters to the north.
  • Portown is cosmopolitan with both human and non-human inhabitants from all over the world.
  • The Green Dragon Inn is popular enough that adventurers gather there to organize expeditions.

In trying to take this information and turn it into a usable map, I have found that the urban hex-crawl style of map has several really nice features.

  • Placing specific details, like the tower ruins and the Green Dragon Inn are a breeze because those are abstracted into an existing hex with the proper theme. I need only make sure that the “Necropolis” hex (where the Sample Dungeon will be found) is on the west end of town and nest to the sea.
  • Less specific details, such as magic-users moving to the area are also a breeze to incorporate. I just need a hex that is appropriately scholarly, such as a “University District” hex.
  • Larger concepts, such as the trade route, are also easy to portray with hexes that have to do with such trade such as “Port” and “Bazaar.”
  • Lastly, if one wants to either enlarge or further detail a city later on, it is as easy as adding a few more hexes. For example, here is what could be termed a “Small but busy City:”

I know the numbering is off, it will make sense below

Hexes include: Port, Olde Town, Bazaar,Burgher’s District, Palace District,University District, Necropolis, The Ancient City, Inn Way, Tent City and Tavern Row.

I, however, want even more city to explore and I also want more potential for political intrigue. Therefore, I decided to add the following:


Hexes include: Monastery District, Barracks Row, Guildhalls and Business District

I then remembered I didn’t have slums or place where a Thieves’ Guild might find home so I added some more:


Hexes include: Lower Guildhalls, Upper Slums, Thieves’ Quarter and Lower Slums.

Here is the final key for the map:
  1. Port
  2. Olde Town
  3. Bazaar
  4. Burgher’s District
  5. Palace District
  6. University District
  7. Necropolis
  8. The Ancient City
  9. Inn Way
  10. Monastery District
  11. Barracks Row
  12. Upper Guildhalls (so called because of its relative elevation)
  13. Business District
  14. Tent City (so called because this is where caravans make camp while transferring their goods)
  15. Tavern Row
  16. Lower Guildhalls (so called because of its relative elevation and the fact that its takes are not as high class as the Upper Guildhalls)
  17. Upper Slums (so called because of its relative elevation and due to the influence of the monasteries)
  18. Thieves’ Quarter
  19. Lower Slums (so called because of its relative elevation and due to the influence of the Thieves' Guild).

Overall, this method of city mapping/city building is really user friendly.

Please note: as I proceed with this particular project, I will be assuming that the larger picture within which Portown is placed will correspond with my earlier work of trying to piece together Holmes' Sample Dungeon and Cook's map of the Known World.

Saturday, July 8, 2017

Saintly Saturday: Prokopius the Great Martyr

Today is the Feast of St. Propokius the Great Martyr, the patron saint, as it were, of this blog. He was originally named Neanius and was from Jerusalem. Though his father was Christian, he was primarily raised by his pagan mother Theodosia because his father died when he was young. They were a prominent family in the Roman Empire. After receiving an excellent education, he was personally introduced to the Emperor Diocletian. He quickly rose through the government ranks when in A.D. 303 Diocletian began his great persecution against the Christians. Neanius was sent to Alexandria as a proconsul to rid the city of Christians.

On his way, Neanius encountered the risen Christ in a vision similar to that of Paul where both men were confronted with the question, “Why do you persecute me?” Like Paul before him, Neanius turned away from the role of persecutor to that of preacher. His mother eventually turned him in and he was sent in chains to Caesaria in Palestine.

There he was tortured and was repeatedly visited by Christ who gave him the name Prokopius. He thus was able to stand up to all the tortures the pagans threw at him, steadfastly proclaiming his faith in Christ. Finally, frustrated at the immovability of Prokopius’ faith, the governor ordered that he be given the citizen’s death of decapitation (thus admitting that the crime the Christians were accused of —treason — was a lie). Inspired by the firmness of that saint’s faith several of the Roman guards responsible for guarding the saint while he was held in prison, including the tribunes Nikostrates and Antiochus, several women of the court as well as his own mother all proclaimed their faith in Christ and followed Prokopius in martyrdom. They, too, are commemorated on this day.


I first met Prokopius on Mt.Athos. I had injured my foot and was waiting to see if there were any monks or facilities at the monastery I was staying that might determine if I had broken a bone or done something as severe. I was attracted to a particular icon of a soldier saint and spent virtually the whole time waiting gazing upon this saint wondering who he was.

After being attended to (in what looked like to me a state-of the-art facility by a doctor become monk from Mexico City) I was given some medication and sent on my way. I eventually visited six monasteries on the mountain and every time I went to church (every morning and evening) I found myself in front of an icon of this same saint, regardless of which monastery I happened to be staying. I eventually inquired and found out this saint was, in fact, Prokopius the Great Martyr. He has (obviously) been watching over me ever since.

I chose the name “Blood of Prokopius” for this blog because it sounded properly Swords & Sorcery-esque but also because I hoped that I could stand as a witness through my musings. Back in December of 2008 I wrote these words:
D&D is not by nature evil. In my life, it has been a great blessing. I allowed it to point me towards God. Through D&D Christ came into my life, and that has been huge. Whether or not something is good or evil depends on how we use it.

Thus we come to the reason for this blog. I fully realize that when the words "Dungeons and Dragons" are mentioned, a lot of Christians cringe. I also know that the same is true of many RPGers who hear the word "Christianity." I hope to stand firmly with one foot in the world of D&D and another in the world of my faith and thus reduce the number of cringes in both worlds. I still love D&D. I still love the culture, the people, the game. And I am a Christian. So, I will muse on how Christianity informs my view of D&D, how I play it and how the two can affect each other in a positive way. Enjoy.
I daresay things have changed for the better since then. In the last 8+ years there have been a number of civil discussions about Christianity and its role in RPGs. No longer does the mere mention of Christianity automatically generate a cringe from the RPG world. In fact, I have a sense that a number of folks out there have come to realize that Christ can in fact speak to the the way they play the game and to the worlds that they build.

Credit must be given to Christ Himself for much of this, through the intercessions of St. Prokopius, but I would be disingenuous if I did not credit all those gamers out there who have read this blog and told other people to read this blog. There are a bunch of people out there in this corner of the internet who were able to look beyond their own prejudices to see that these games we love to play bind us together in ways that reach beyond those prejudices, beyond the borders and walls we build around ourselves. For that I must thank each and every one of you and am proud to be a part of this little corner of the internet that continues to defy the convention that people from different backgrounds and different beliefs cannot understand each other.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Under Portown: The Beginnings of a City Hexcrawl

I really cannot understand these city folk. Why would anyone want to live in this filth infested maze where you cannot see the horizon?
— The Journal of Sho Zo-ton from Afar
I used to live in Boston. I did not like it. Unless you live within spitting distance of the T (which I did not) Boston is an inhospitable maze of one-way former cow paths that can get you turned around faster than you can say “Red Sox.” Whenever you get directions to someplace, you have to make sure you get directions to get back as well, because these two trips are normally very different animals. Thus, when I found this post by WQRobb on Hexcrawling a City over at Graphs, Paper, and Games I grokked it immediately.

In Boston, navigation involves knowing landmarks and how those landmarks are connected. Thus, a trip to the school might be understood as “grocery store-church-school.” Very rarely did street names ever become relevant. Indeed street names are a false friend in the Boston area because there might be several streets by the same name in different parts of the city (which got me really lost once after which I never made the same mistake again).

The idea to make a FRPG city map abstract is nothing new (see Vornheim); however, none of them made me immediately think of my years in Boston the way WQRobb did. Navigating a hex crawl city evokes the navigation-by-landmark survival strategy I had to live by in Boston. It also opens up the possibility for getting lost or discovering things that you weren’t even looking for (like the time I was walking around Prague looking for a restaurant and spent the next several hours at the Jewish Cemetery instead).

Thus, I plan on mapping out Portown in the hex crawl style suggested by WQRobb. Thus, each hex in the city will have a theme. For example: The Monastery District. There will be several main features within each hex that can be looked for and found:

  1. The Cathedral of St. Garbee (3 in 6)
  2. Quasgadontee Monastery (3 in 6)
  3. Skete of Seefeg the Searcher (2 in 6)
  4. Catacombs of St. Ree’U (2 in 6)
  5. Amit the Hut Dweller (1 in 6)
  6. Lost

Thus, if one is simply exploring a hex, roll a d6 and find the result. A roll of ‘6’ gets you lost. This can mean either wasted time inside the hex (and more opportunities for random encounter) or ending up in an entirely different hex. This can be determined at the whim of the Referee.

If one is looking for a specific location (like the Cathedral) there is a given success rate for actually finding it. A failed roll results in getting lost with the same results as above. At the discretion of the Referee, chances to find a particular location can be increased with multiple visits (demonstrating a better knowledge of the layout of the city); however, there can never be better than a 5 in 6 chance of success (one can always get lost).

To pass through a hex requires a roll of a d6. A roll of 5 or 6 results in getting lost.

Every time a die roll is required inside a hex to find a Main Feature, to explore or to pass through the Referee gets to make a roll for a Random Encounter. The chances on having a Random Encounter are up to the whim of the Referee.

A Random Encounter Table in the Monastery District might look like this:

  1. Roll on Main Features Table (you’ve accidentally found a location, but a ‘6’ still means getting lost).
  2. A Religious Procession
  3. Monk(s)
  4. Pilgrims
  5. Temple Guard
  6. Monster (TBD)

Add a +1 to the roll when exploring at night. The “Monster (TBD)” is an opportunity to take whatever faction is currently dominant Under Portown and bring them to the surface whether on some nefarious errand or to track down and take revenge on the PCs is up to the Referee.

While this might look like a lot of work, I think it actually will end up being less work than trying to draw out an actual city map and placing all these features on that map. I also believe it will make urban adventuring a lot more evocative and interesting than a traditional street map.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Under Portown: An Introduction

I have spent some time with the local scholars, who all seem to agree that Portown was built over some kind of settlement originally built by what they call “the ancients.” There is, however, some disagreement as to how significant the settlement actually was. Most dismiss the idea that such an isolated area would be anything other than a minor colony.

I was able to barter some more information from a man called Garudon. The other scholars like to refer to him as “the Younger,” possibly due to the existence of an older man of the same name; however, I have noticed that the hairy nature of the locals seems to increase with age and Garudon the Younger seems as able to grow a beard as I am. He seemed rather interested in stories from my homeland, and I was able to get out of him information about a pair of scholars that seem to have fallen out of favor.

Evidently, there is one scholar, simply known as “the Albino” that insists than there are texts that suggest Portown was far more than just an ancient colony. This theory has no physical evidence, however, and, as “the Albino” shuns daylight and the outdoors, there doesn’t seem to be any interest in finding any physical evidence to corroborate that theory.

I could also sense that there was more to this that simply a lack of evidence. When I pushed, Garudon seemed almost afraid. Finally, when he made sure that there could be no possible eavesdropper, he mentioned someone he called Bereth the Mad. One of the reasons “the Albino” cannot drum up any support for his theories is that one of the texts was written by the Bereth before he went mad. So, it seems that it is not just that physical evidence cannot be found, it is that there are those that do not want it found.

The Journal of Sho Zo-ton from Afar

Monday, July 3, 2017

Captain America: Civil War is a Christian Movie!?

Please note: I have been meaning to write this post for awhile but never seem to get around to it, but JB’s comment to my meditations on Dune has finally got the ball rolling.

Let me be brutally honest: I have never really liked Marvel in any of its incarnations. Back when I collected comic books, most of the titles I bought came from the independent scene or were from some of the more experimental titles from DC (e.g. their Vertigo line). I enjoy the genre and the fact that we now have the ability to put these characters on film in all their glory, but the MCU has never been something that I ever got excited about. I have enjoyed watching the odd MCU film, but the only one that I had seen more than once was the first Iron Man movie and that was because it allowed me the rare opportunity to watch a movie with my wife, not because I went out of my way to see it again.

Therefore, when Captain America: Civil War came out, I was wholly uninterested. When people began to impose upon it a political message of Libertarianism (embodied by Cap) vs. Authoritarianism (embodied by Iron Man) I was even less interested. Not only do I find that politics in movies get too preachy and harm the artistry of the film, but I believed they had got the politics all wrong. Iron Man should have been the libertarian, having stood up to the government in Iron Man 2 to defend his property rights. Cap should have been more amenable to authoritarianism because the government he fought for not only had authoritarian leanings (FDR was all about government control) but was the very source of his power. If you disagree with my assessment of FDR, compare his policies to those of Hitler (minus all the racist/superior race crap) and you will find a shocking amount of similarity.

Thus, I didn’t see the movie for a long time. When I finally did, I realized just how wrong I was about the movie. Not only is it really good, not only have I watched it multiple times, not only is it not really about politics, but it is the most Christian movie to come out of Hollywood in a long time.

Let me explain:

This movie has three main characters:

  • Captain America who represents Christianity (remember his line from Avengers, “There is only one God, ma’am, and I am pretty sure He doesn’t dress like that.”)
  • Iron Man who represents the man of science who has successfully replaced God with man-made miracles and is in full control of his life and his environment.
  • Black Panther who represents the non-Western man for whom age-old tradition is still important.

In the first act of the movie, each man must face tragedy. Each reacts in a different way:

  • Iron Man is confronted by the fact that despite all his miraculous technology and all of his scientific genius, he is not in control. Out of desperation he tries to seize that control through government power.
  • Black Panther falls back on one of humankind’s most primal reactions to tragedy, one that we have turned to since the beginning of time: revenge.
  • Captain America insists on liberty and forgiveness. Thus, he insists that every human being is made according to the image and likeness of God and therefore has value. He is also willing to die to prove that point, even for those who are accused of heinous crimes.

As the movie progresses and lines are drawn and sides are taken, each of these men’s approaches to tragedy begins to play out:

  • Iron man begins to lose his freedom and his people begin to lose their value. Superheroes are treated as a faceless category of people rather than unique individuals.
  • Black Panther becomes more and more isolated and ends up fighting with everybody.
  • Captain America and those who choose his path become martyrs. Their sacrifices begin to affect those around them to the point where people begin to see that Cap may very well have a point.

In the end it is Captain America’s Christian approach that allows these men to not only move through and past tragedy, but become stronger for it.

  • Black Panther understands that his revenge will only beget more revenge in an unending cycle. As a result, he ends up saving the life of the man who killed his father.
  • Those that followed Captain America are freed from their imprisonment.
  • Despite being trapped in the dehumanizing government machine he created, Iron Man knows that Captain America will always be there for him, personifying Christ’s words to His disciples in Matthew 28:20, “and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age.”

So, this really took me by surprise because I am not used to having such big blockbuster movies being so open to Christian themes and ideas. I was doubly shocked when those ideas prevailed. So, I invite you to watch Captain America: Civil War again and see it through the lens of Christ.

Saturday, July 1, 2017

Saintly Saturday: Sts. Comas and Damian the Unmercenary Healers

Today is the Feast of Sts. Cosmas and Damian the Unmercenary Healers. These brothers were from a pious family in Rome and were physicians by trade. They became renowned for miraculously healing people through prayer. The brothers told the sick, “It is not by our own power that we treat you, but by the power of Christ, the true God. Believe in Him and be healed.” They accepted no payment for their treatments and so earned the title “Unmercenary Healers.” They were martyred the year A.D. 284, under the Emperors Carinus and Numerian.


Interestingly, these are one of three pairs of Unmercenary Healers with these names celebrated in the Orthodox Church today. On November 1st we celebrate Cosmas and Damian from Asia Minor and on October 17 we celebrate Cosmas and Damian from Arabia. Some have speculated that not all of these saints had the names Cosmas and Damian in life, but became known as Cosmas and Damian because of the fame and piety associated with those names.

It is also reminiscent of the superhero trope of the mantle most explicitly expressed (in my mind) by the Phantom: the Ghost Who Walks. The whole mystique of the Phantom is that he never dies and this illusion is accomplished by the mantle being passed down from generation to generation.


Sts. Cosmas and Damian, however, suggest a different kind of mantle. Whereas superheroes like the Phantom defend a place and/or fight injustice as vigilantes, Cosmas and Damian largely ignored the powers that be and simply healed those in need. Of course, this resulted in many believing in Christ which was perceived as a threat to Roman rule.

In context of an FRPG, this suggests an interesting twist on the whole “my character got bit by a giant rat and needs a Cure Disease spell” experience. What if practicing divine magic were illegal or tightly controlled by the the powers that be or was otherwise restricted to the rich and powerful? In response there could be a mantle for various healers to pick up in order to protect their own identity and still be able to help those in need. Such a mantle could even eventually be picked up by a cleric PC.

For an example of a campaign style where such a mantle could exist, check out this.

Friday, June 30, 2017

Dune!

I just finished re-reading Dune again and had to get this off my chest. Please note: I have never read beyond a couple of chapters into the sequels of Dune and have no real interest in reading further. Everything that follows limits itself exclusively to the original 1965 novel.

Besides the Bible and a select number of the Church Fathers, there are very few books that I actually bother to read more than once. Ironically, one of those is Frank Herbert’s Dune.

I use that word ironic because I disagree almost completely with the way Herbert represents religion in his universe:

  • Christianity is nowhere to be found except as part of a synchronistic pseudo-religion concocted by those in power to control the masses. Christ explicitly declares that He will be with us always and that not even the gates Hades will be able to overcome His Church. So, any science fiction or speculative fiction that eradicates Christianity usually falls outside my ability to suspend my disbelief.
  • All religions are enough alike that in the face of billions of lives lost they could suddenly find a means to unite under one watered-down version of themselves. Christ specifically says: And this is eternal life, that they know You the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent (John 17:3). There is no way to water that down.
  • “Men looked at their gods and their rituals and saw both were filled with that most terrible of all equations: fear over ambition.” Herbert makes an assumption I see a lot of moderns make: that Christianity keeps its faithful in line through fear. I won’t discount that possibility in certain communities or denominations, but it runs completely counter to the Gospel which declares that there is no more need for fear because death itself has been defeated. Over and over again in Scripture when people encounter the Angel of the Lord (the pre-incarnate Christ) he tells them “Do not be afraid.”

I find myself drawn to Dune for three reasons:

  • It is well written and entertaining.
  • The world-building Herbert pulls off is breathtaking.
  • For an author that (at least within the pages of his book) denies the divine, he is brutally honest about what a world looks like without God.

It is this last point that I find most interesting about Dune and was what really lept off the page when I most recently read the book again. Unlike all of the various adaptations of Dune (there are three that I am aware of), the books end with Paul failing.

To put this in context, let me focus on a theme that is so deep in the world-building of Herbert that no adaptation has ever bothered to explore: the Butlerian Jihad. It is only mentioned in passing in Dune in Appendix II:
Then came the Butlerian Jihad — two generations of chaos. The god of machine-logic was overthrown among the masses and a new concept was raised: “Man cannot be replaced.”
This conflict is hinted at early in Dune by the Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam:
Once men turned their thinking over to machines in the hope that this would set them free. But that only permitted other men with machines to enslave them.
and the Baron Harkonnen:
A most efficient Mental, Piter, wouldn’t you say, Feyd?…But he consumes too much spice, eats it like candy. Look at his eyes! He might’ve come directly from the Arrakeen labor pool. Efficient Piter, but he still can err…This is a Mental, Feyd. It has been trained and conditioned to perform certain duties. The fact that it’s encased in a human body, however, must not be overlooked. A serious drawback, that I sometimes think the ancients with their thinking machines had the right idea.
The society in Dune abandoned “thinking machines” in favor of honing the human form to the best of its ability through genetic breeding programs (Bene Gesserit), the use of Spice (Space Guild and Mentats) and training (Sarkurkar and Fremen). The stated goal of all of this was power.

Baron Harkonnen, though a despicable human being, was absolutely correct: no matter how much human beings try to control themselves and their environment, they are still human beings and will err. There are things that will always be out of our control.

This is wonderfully expressed by Paul’s angry warning to the Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam, “Here I stand…but…I…will…never…do…[your]…bidding!” He is referring to the fact the he is the culmination of the Bene Gesserit breeding program, the Kwisatz Haderach, which they sought to control.

When Paul first discovers the truth about Himself, when the Spice of Arrakis begins to change him, he begins to see how various choices affected possible timelines. This prescience allowed him to see a future he desperately wanted to avoid: a jihad by the Fremen in his name that would embroil the entire universe. He spends the rest of the book trying to figure out a way to avoid this jihad.

At the very end of the book, he acquiesces to Feyd-Rautha’s challenge despite the fact that a) he could very well die at the hands of his arch-rival, and b) as Muad’Dib he had no reason to abide by the rules of kanly. The real reason he went forth to his potential death was because he was resigned to the fact that there was nothing he could do to halt the jihad. It would go on whether or not he died, whether or not he fought. So, he chose to fatalistically step into the fighter’s ring to try and kill his cousin:
Paul saw how futile were any efforts of his to change any smallest bit of this. He had thought to oppose the jihad within himself, but the jihad would be. His legions would rage out from Arrakis even without him.
When God is removed from the equation, all that is left is the biological imperative:
The race of humans had felt its own dormancy, sensed itself grown stale and knew now only the need to experience turmoil in which the genes would mingle and the strong new mixtures survive.
The vanguard of this strength would be the Fremen, a people dominated by the Darwinian code of the survival of the fittest. Tempered in the harsh, water-starved planet of Arrakis and shaped by the Spice they would take that strength, mingle it with humanity across the universe in a bloodbath that would cull the weak.

As I said, brutally honest. Without God all we have is death. By the billions.

This all re-enforces my own Christian faith. The same race-consciousness that Herbert hints at in the pages of Dune is embraced in toto by Christ when He becomes incarnate. The transformative power that the Bene Gesserit, Space Guild and the Jihad grasp at is freely given in Christ. The mechanism for transformative change is wrested from the hands of death by the resurrected Christ and becomes not just life but eternal life.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

A Holmes Inspired Megadungeon: Under Portown

Ever since I started down the path of trying to combine Holmes and Cook, I have been trying to create a megadungeon that would tick off all the boxes I see suggested in a Holmes-style game. To a certain extent, I have accomplished much of what I wanted with my version of the Chateau des Faussesflammes, but the result has been, well, really complex.

As my Gamer ADD has recently returned to Holmes, I have been working on taking some of the ideas I put into practice with the Chateau, but in a much simpler format in order to flesh out the Sample Dungeon found in Holmes. 

Here is the basic concept: The dungeon beneath Portown is part of the Mythic Underground. Therefore, it is an NPC unto itself. One of the great dangers of the Mythic Underground is that as an environment, it is hostile to adventurers (as is evidenced by the fact that doors easily open for monsters, but PCs must use Thief Skills, spells or Strength). One way that hostility can express itself is by actually changing.

Under Portown, there are six elements of the dungeon that do not change. One is the entrance and there are five special areas which all play a major part in the backstory of the dungeon itself. I've drawn these up here:

The idea here is that the spaces around these six elements can change on a whim. For my part, I am imagining various factions vying for control of the dungeon. Each faction controls a different version of the dungeon. As each faction's power waxes and wanes, the Mythic Underground exposes different versions of itself to the surface world.

Thus, I can take a piece of tracing paper and draw out different "levels" and place them over my six static elements. Here is a version where I took pieces and parts of the Sample Dungeon of Holmes:

Alternately, I can do this electronically. I purposely used geomorphs to create the five main elements of the dungeon so that it would be possible to create something in Dave's Mapper to drop my main elements into with little effort on my part:

The result is an ever-changing megadungeon with an unlimited number of rooms; however, PCs will always have anchor points of familiarity if they can find those unchanging elements of each version of the dungeon. If they can figure out part of the mechanism of when the dungeon changes, they can also begin to have some control over which version of the dungeon they explore.

Monday, June 26, 2017

On Gnomes and Titans

Recently, an old high school buddy of mine got inspired to go back and re-read some of the older rulesets of D&D, in part because of my gushing review of the Swords & Wizardry Legion stuff I was able to get my grubby mitts on.

He and I have a weird appreciation for gnomes as a PC race. When 4th Edition came out, there was a Youtube video explaining why tieflings were now PCs instead of gnomes. Ironically, it just cemented everything we like about gnomes. We both are infected with the old-school mind-set that if you can survive a dungeon with a pathetic excuse for a PC it says a lot about your skill as a player. Therefore, we understood this video as a challenge:



So, my friend decides he is going to make a 1e AD&D gnome character and consequently forwards me this quote:
"When being attacked by gnolls, bugbears, ogres, trolls, ogre magi, giants AND/OR TITANS (emphasis mine), gnome characters subtract 4 from their opponents' "to hit" dice rolls because of the gnomes' small size AND THEIR COMBAT SKILL AGAINST THESE MUCH BIGGER CREATURES (mine, again).
He also challenged me to figure out why a gnome would have combat skills against titans.

This rule is actually a remnant from Chainmail:
DWARVES (and Gnomes)…Although they are no threat to the larger creatures, Trolls, Ogres, and Giants find them hard to catch because of their small size, so count only one-half normal kills when Dwarves and Gnomes fight with them…
So, although gnomes are ineffectual at doing any damage to these types of creatures, from a tactical point of view, they do serve as a great way of slowing them down long enough to get stronger units in place to take the larger creatures out.

This rule is not found in OD&D, probably because it was assumed because the combat system used by OD&D was Chainmail. The d20 system everyone is familiar with today was the alternate combat system. As a consequence, this is not found in either Holmes or Moldvay but does find itself back in 1e AD&D with “Titan” added to the list of examples of creatures that have a hard time hitting dwarves and gnomes; however, 1e AD&D also adds that very curious phrase about combat skill…

If one takes a look at the Titan in the 1e AD&D Monster Manual, three intriguing aspects jump out:

  1. Titans primarily live on other planes, but do occasionally visit the Prime Material Plane especially to mingle with Storm Giants.
  2. Titans can use Invisibility at will and have access to a number of spells from both the magic-user and cleric spell lists.
  3. Titans who use Protection from Evil get double the bonus against Lawful Evil creatures.

This paints a picture of a creature type that existed before there was a distinction between Arcane and Divine magic, who does not see other planes as their natural home, spent time specifically fighting Lawful Evil creatures but lost due to the fact the the Prime Material Plane is no longer their normal habitat.

There are two groups of creatures that immediately suggest themselves when one thinks of Lawful Evil: Humanoids and Devils. Only one of those groups lives on the Prime Material Plane.

I am now going to go down a path that necessitates an understanding of my reading of the relationship between various humanoids and Dwarves. You can find that post here.

The ancient being(s) that twisted elves and dwarves into various humanoids did so in an ongoing battle with Titans on the Prime Material Plane. In response, the Titans developed more powerful protection spells against the humanoids which made up the bulk of the armies they were fighting against. In response, the ancient(s) enslaved the dwarves to use as fodder against the titans and further twisted the dwarves into gnomes. Dwarves and gnomes are resistant to magic and gnomes are bread specifically to deal with illusionist magics (to fight invisible titans). Due to the fact that the protective magics of the titans were designed to fight Lawful Evil humanoids, when they came upon dwarves and gnomes, they were caught by surprise and underestimated the danger of their foes. As a consequence, the titans were driven off the prime material plane.

Thus, dwarves and gnomes have combat skills against titans because they were specifically bred to fight against them by the ancient(s) who twisted elves and dwarves in the first place.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Saintly Saturday: The Venerable Barlaam the Abbot of Khutyn

The Venerable Barlaam the Abbot of Khutyn, Novgorod is an ascetic saint of the twelfth century. He grew up in an illustrious family of Novgorod, but chose the monastic tonsure early in life. He became a hermit, living in the wilderness of Khutyn outside the city. He was a strict ascetic and by the end of his life, an entire monastic community had developed around him.

Today, however, is not the Feast of the Venerable Barlaam of Khutin, that would be November 6th. Today is the Nativity of St. John the Baptist, which I have already mused upon here. In the Orthodox Church, we fast in preparation for various feasts. Right now, we are in the Apostles’ Fast getting ready for the Feast of Sts. Peter and Paul on June 29th. I chose to write about St. Barlaam because in Slavonic practice, he holds a special place of honor during times of fasting. As an exemplar of the ascetic life, he is especially called upon during times like these to pray for the strength we need to keep the fast.



This brings up an interesting opportunity to add some background flavor to a FRPG world where fasting is a regular practice. In context of a B/X or LL game it might look something like this:

Fasting requires that a character give up 1hp per Hit Die for an adventure. In return they receive a special one-use bonus depending upon which class they are:

  • Clerics: May either gain one automatic Turn success or an automatic maximum roll for one healing spell.
  • Fighters: May either gain one automatic hit in combat or one automatic maximum roll for damage.
  • Magic-users: May either gain one automatic Saving Throw success or an automatic maximum effect for one spell.
  • Thieves: May either gain one automatic Saving Throw or an automatic success on one attempt at a Thieving Skill (which could be interpreted as maximum damage on a backstab).

If the fasting in question coincides with the preparation of a major feast, the character gets two uses of the above bonus.

Friday, June 23, 2017

Holmes!

I love me some random tables and I love me some Holmes Basic D&D. In honor of Free RPG Day, Zenopus Archives released Holmes Ref 2.0. I highly recommend checking it out, even if you have no real interest in Holmes because it is chuck full of goodness, especially of the random nature.

Ostensibly, it is a reference sheet for taking Holmes beyond its original scope of character levels 1-3 using OD&D as its default point of departure for higher levels (brilliant idea, especially since that is exactly what Holmes himself did). Thus, I find myself desperately wanting to play a Holmes campaign using this stuff.

There are, however, some very cool variations in here that are portable to any Old-School game and, with a little work, to any version of the game.

Firstly, there is a random name table that apes some of the names from Holmes and B1 and reminds me of the name charts found in the alien expansions for Original Traveller (which is always a good thing). The first time I rolled up a name, it produced something truly inspiring: Sho Zo-ton from Afar (more on this below)

Secondly, it provides a Backgrounds table for human characters that players may roll on in lieu of rolling up beginning cash. Each background provides a cool ability, a set of equipment appropriate for that background and a reduced number of dice x10 for starting cash.

So, for Sho Zo-ton from Afar I rolled up a Nomad background which provides an ability to surprise 1-4 on a d6 when outside while wearing leather armor or less and the ability to use archery while riding. In addition to 1d6x10 starting gold (I rolled a ‘4’), the character starts with a Light Horse, Lance, Horse Bow and Leather Armor.

This is where the fun begins. The title “from Afar” suggests that this character comes from a distant land. A fantasy version of Korea immediately suggested itself, because traditionally Koreans have 3 syllable names: the first being the family name and the last two being the given name. Therefore ‘Sho’ is the character’s clan and ‘Zo-ton’ is the given name. Additionally, traditional Korean weapons fall into three broad categories: bows (which are considered to be THE Korean weapon), spears (of which a lance is a variation) and sword.

For flavor, I noted the Korean names of each weapon Sho Zo-ton carries:

  • Gakgung (a bow made from buffalo horn)
  • Gichang (a spear with a flag at the spear end used both by horsemen and footmen)
  • Hwando (a single edged curved short sword, which I used part of the 40gp to purchase)

Traditionally, men of the Joseon period (14th c.-19th c. which is approximate to the suggested fantasy Western culture in most D&D settings) wore their hair in a sangtu top-knot. This signified manhood which came from being married (and they married young). This suggests a reason why Sho Zo-ton came from Afar to adventure in the “West:” his family, specifically his wife, was killed by strange beasts (orcs? gnolls? lizard men?) that he learned originated from the area that the campaign takes place. He is here for honor and vengeance.

All this from a couple of random table rolls!

Finally, Holmes Ref 2.0 organizes all 80 monsters in Holmes into a giant Monster Reference Table which accomplishes two things:

Firstly, it provides a customizable Wandering Monster Table in that the monsters are grouped together by Hit Dice and the reference numbers are organized into groups of twelve allowing the GM to roll up to a d8 in addition to a d12 to get a random monster. The smaller the first die, the lower the likely HD of the monster.

Secondly, it provides a cool way to create new monsters. The Table is organized into AC, DMGxAT, AC, MV, AL, TT, Special Characteristic and Habits. Roll on the table using the aforementioned d8 and d12 to randomly determine each category. With a little imagination, the result is a brand new monster (and one I am guessing that pushes our creativity beyond what we would normally do).

The first time I rolled up a creature, I came up with this:

Living Door

HD: 1d4
Dam: 1d6
AC: 4
MV: 0
AL: Neutral
TT: Nil
Special: Shriek with 1d3 rounds of light within 30’ or movement within 10’; 50% of wandering monster
Habits: Unintelligent

These strange plants were magically grown by the ancients to warn of intruders and discourage interlopers. They appear to be doors made of wood without any handle. Carved in the middle of the door is an abstract face with a open mouth as if screaming. Within 1d3 rounds of there either being light within 30’ or movement within 10’ the living door begins to shriek and shoot thorn-like darts out of its mouth. Any attack against the living door that doesn’t target the face does no damage.

The dart attacks and the shrieking will cease (or never begin if done quickly enough) if the proper type of food (e.g. Carrion Crawler flesh), determined by the ancient who grew the creature, is placed inside the mouth of the Living Door. The mouth will close and the door will open and remain open for 1d6 turns while the food is digested.

Once killed, a Living Door functions as a normal locked door; however, it is rumored that if food is placed inside the mouth of a dead Living Door it can be revived to then accept whatever food is placed in the mouth to revive it.


A very Holmsian monster, if I do say so myself!

BTW if you are interested in seeing some good and inspiring movies that feature Korean archery, I suggest The Fatal Encounter and War of the Arrows.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Saintly Saturday: St. Botolph Abbot of the Monastery Icanhoh

Today is the Feast of St. Botolph, Abbot of the Monastery Icanhoh who is a British saint from the 7th century. Born in Britain, he became a monk in Gaul. King Ethelmund of East Anglia sent his sisters to Gaul to learn the monastic discipline. There they met St. Botolph and learned that he wanted to return to Britain. Therefore, they requested that their brother bequeath some land to the monk so that he could build a monastery.

St. Botolph asked that whatever land was given to him did not come from any man’s possession so to avoid gaining from someone’s loss. Therefore, King Ethelmund granted the monk a piece of wilderness called Icanhoh. The place, according to his hagiography, was crawling with demons. Thus, before he began establishing his monastery, he had to fight with the demons and drive them all off. He spent the rest of his life in prayer becoming known for working miracles and speaking prophecy. After a bout with a painful disease in the last several years of his life, he passed in A.D. 680. HIs relics were found later to give off a sweet fragrance and to be incorrupt.

Eventually, the area around Icanhoh became settled and was known as Botolphston, which can mean both Botolph’s stone or Botolph’s town. As the years passed, the name of the place was contracted to “Boston.”


I have often pointed out the fact that the lives of the monastic saints closely resemble that of the typical D&D campaign. They come from Christian Civilization, go out into the Demonic Wilderness and tame it so that Civilization can expand; however, I don’t recall ever reading a saint’s life that so explicitly followed this formula. The hagiography literally says that Icanhoh was a desolate place where he had to fight demons. This is yet another example of why I think the formula of Christian Civilization vs. the Demonic Wilderness in D&D works so well, because it mirrors the experience of the Church Herself.

In addition, it is really cool to know that the etymology of my old stomping ground suggests that not only is Boston Bean Town but also St. Botolph’s Town. It is too bad that the only Church of St. Botolph I know of is in Boston, Lincolnshire. Boston, Mass should have something dedicated to their namesake.

***

The Red Seax


This legendary +1 short sword/long knife was forged from the strange red metal recovered from a meteor. It was forged to be a holy weapon using incense as its carbon source, etched with a holy symbol and quenched in holy oil. In the hands of a Lawful character, it offers Protection from Evil 10’r when wielded. Against Chaotic creatures it is a +2 weapon and against the undead it is +3.

Its original owner was the King’s Champion Dreux who had it forged specifically to combat a demon that had began to terrorize the people in the borderlands. Unfortunately, the demon prevailed and the Red Seax became part of the demon’s growing treasure trove. As the Kingdom’s fortunes fell with the increasing influence of the demon, the king’s youngest son, Merovech, gave up his monastic training to quest after the sword. He managed to sneak into the demon’s lair and steal the sword right out from beneath the creature’s nose. He went on to use the weapon to fight against and finally rid the kingdom of the demon’s influence, although he did die from the wounds he sustained before managing to deliver the killing blow to the demon itself. In honor of his great deeds, the Red Seax remains in the prince’s tomb where it awaits to be used once again to defend the realm against evil.

For those interested, I used random tables here and here to come up with the properties and the background of the sword.

Friday, June 16, 2017

Meditating on How I Play the Game

Having read JB’s thoughts on the matter and some of the rants that inspired his post, I want to share some of my thoughts, but not in a philosophical, ranty kind of way. Like others, I find the video that started off this whole series of posts to be rather a waste of time and largely mistaken. To explain how, I want to tell the stories of several seminal moments in my experience as someone who plays RPGs:

Moment the First

When I was a wee high-school baby, I was introduced through some of my older friends to a cigarette smoking college student who wanted to start running a D&D campaign. The premise was simple. He showed us a map of where our characters were and asked us what we wanted to do. I remember how eye-opening it was to be at the steering wheel of the campaign: “You mean this whole campaign can be about us trying to hunt down and kill that blue dragon you told us about!? YES!” And, indeed that was the entirety of the campaign.

It was also the first and last time I played a Chaotic Evil character. While I remember the campaign fondly, I do not remember my fellow players that way. Since all the players knew my character was Chaotic Evil (and therefore a threat, although what kind of danger they expected out of a 1st level Illusionist, I don’t know) and therefore they were always trying to kill my character. The DM, however, always had my back. Even when I blatantly explained how my actions were rather Chaotic and Evil, he always made the players explain to him how their characters would know. When they failed (because I was VERY careful that my actions could be interpreted as helpful) the DM would disallow every attempt to kill me off.

In other words, the DM did a really good job of being a DM. He gave us a bunch of freedom to do whatever we wanted within his world, but very strictly enforced parameters around that freedom. There were certain things that were just not going to happen (like using player knowledge to screw with other players at the table). This actually made the freedom we had as players more valuable. For example, I knew I could get away with certain CE-like acts because the DM made sure that players couldn’t abuse their player knowledge and, in a way, I think he enjoyed how much I toed the line so that being CE never actually overtly hurt the party.

Moment the Second

Like many players in the 90s I played a lot of White Wolf products, and believe it or not I really appreciated these games. They actually taught me a lot about how to play a game. When my friends approached me about playing Vampire for the first time, for some odd reason they wanted me to be the…was it Storyteller? is that what they called the Referee/DM/GM? The reason I say odd, is because I rarely sat in the DM’s chair when we played. In retrospect, it might have been the few times I ran Call of Cthulhu one-shots that inspired them to ask me to take the reigns of a horror-themed RPG.

If I am honest, I rather didn’t waste a lot of time reading up on “how to play” essays littered throughout the industry. I learned by doing and this was the first real opportunity I had to put into practice what I had learned from my experience in Moment the First. I presented my players with a world: Boston. I informed them of that world through their various clans and then dropped a McGuffin into the whole mess where everybody wanted the McGuffin for different reasons. I then allowed my players to do what they wanted to do (within the parameters set by the game and by the setting).

In many ways, it was one of the more thoroughly satisfying campaigns I have ever been a part of, because I was surprised every time we played. My players refused to be predictable and as a consequence, my world had to react in ways I never imagined. It all culminated in a rousing three-way battle in the middle of Cambridge which left the players catching their breath in disbelief that they had actually survived. The best part: one of the players decided that it was in the best interest of everybody that the McGuffin be destroyed. I remember the player asking me if he could talk to me in private, because he wasn’t really sure that what he wanted to do was allowed. When I said, “Sure, why not?” I saw in him myself when that cigarette smoking DM asked our party what we wanted do to. He suddenly realized how much power he had over his own character and the campaign. The reaction around the table when the McGuffin shattered to pieces was one of the best moments I have ever had at an RPG table. I wasn’t responsible for that reaction, but I set up the freedom and the parameters for its possibility. I have been trying to duplicate this atmosphere for my players ever since and every campaign has a moment just like this, where my world interacts with a group of players that have taken the reigns of the campaign to create something that I could never manufacture on my own, even if I tried.

Moment the Third

In another White Wolf campaign, the group I played with decided to give Mage a try. We all toiled over character creation and painstakingly crafted the characters we all thought we wanted to play. Then our Storyteller? Referee? did something rather surprising that we all found shockingly fun: once he had introduced the fundamentals of the campaign, he handed us our characters’ counter-parts in the Technocracy. I ended up with a chick in a wheelchair. At first we all were not very happy, but then as we started to play we all realized that playing these characters that we had nothing to do with the creation of was actually more fun than playing our actual characters. I had no time invested in this character at all so I seized upon some of the things I saw on the character sheet and began playing her personality to the hilt without any fear of having this character die or be harmed or of even being liked. Other players followed suit and we soon found ourselves clicking as party, playing off of each other and outdoing ourselves when we had those carefully crafted characters we spent so much time creating. We were actually disappointed when we had to go back to our own characters.

Playing wheelchair chick made me realize that unfettered creativity isn’t all that creative. Left to our own devices, we human beings are kind of boring. When we start putting limiters on where we start with our creativity, whether those limits are playing a character we had nothing to do with creating, using random tables, rolling attributes in order, using only the Fiend Folio or Monster Manual II, using B/X or the original three LBBs as a starting point or whatever, the choices we make are going to surprise us and lead down paths we would never have thought of otherwise. This was yet another example of complete freedom within a set of strict parameters that just exploded with creativity and good fun. I have used random tables ever since.

Moment the Fourth

I will end with a bad experience. It was the first time I played D&D 3.5 with a DM that pretty much resembled the fellow in the video that started this mass spilling of virtual ink. Our party found ourselves in a time-crunch. We couldn’t retreat for fear of the evil we had uncovered getting away and becoming more powerful. So we pressed forward through the dungeon we were in despite not being prepared in the way 3.5 expects its players to be. When we got to the boss fight, it should have been a TPK. We couldn’t afford to retreat, but we couldn’t do damage at a rate that would allow us to survive the encounter. In fact, my character was completely incapable of doing any damage. I was out of spells and was only good as a meat shield. When the DM realized the situation, he started fudging die rolls and inexplicably changed tactics so that our party could actually start doing the kind of damage we needed to do in order to survive.

I actually felt cheated. My character should have died and I was robbed of a(n in)glorious death. We missed an opportunity as a group to re-think our party make-up and the way in which we approached the campaign to start anew and having to deal with all of the consequences of our previous party’s failure. Instead, we were all slaves of the story. The campaign never really recovered for me, but the upside is that it created an opening for me to introduce this group of players to Labyrinth Lord and the Lost Colonies were born. Although I have been sore tempted to fudge a die roll now and then, I have done my best to keep myself honest by rolling all my dice in the open ever since. As a consequence, even when those die rolls have resulted in the death of a beloved character, I have never felt cheated.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Saintly Saturday: The Holy Schemamonk Silvanus of the Kiev Caves

Today is the feast of the Holy Schemamonk Silvanus of the Kiev Caves. He was an ascetic in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. The monastery of the Kiev Caves (also known as Kiev Pecharsk Lavra) was founded in the eleventh century and today looks like this:

Anyone itching to make a mega-dungeon with the classic
trope of an abandoned monastery with caves beneath?
Photo by Falin - Own workCC BY-SA 3.0Link

A Schemamonk is one who takes on the Great Schema, which is a type of extreme ascetic monasticism. They wear a special vestment which looks like this:

Don't you just  want this guy in your campaign world?
Orthodox Christian nuns with the Great Schema

Interestingly, there is an example of a miracle performed through St. Silvans that looks an awful lot like a Hold Person spell. There was a group of robbers that had come to the monastery to do mischief. St. Silvans saw them sneaking through the garden and through his prayers they were held fast and unable to move. Only after they repented did the monk set them free. I see this as further evidence that the original Cleric Spell List was mostly inspired by Christian miracles.

***
For those interested, here is the monk class re-imagined as a Western, Christian analog class for B/X and Labyrinth Lord. I use this as a class available to players in my Lost Colonies campaign.

Red Monk

Prime Requisite: STR, WIS, DEX and CON
Hit Dice: 1d6
Maximum Level: 14
Class Damage Die: d6 (For those who use it)
Requirements: Must be Lawful

In Wilderness areas at the edge of Istenite Civilization is a militant order of monastics that is popularly known as the Red Monks, due to their use of a red wolf hook in their heraldry as well as their reddish-brown robes. Through ascetic practices of prayer and fasting, red monks seek to hone their bodies into living weapons to fight against evil in order to make The Wilderness safe for Civilization.

Red Monks fight and save as Fighters. The are limited to leather armor or lighter as well as shields. [For those who don’t use the class damage die, they may use crossbows, hand axes, polearms, spears, swords and staff.]

In addition, they have the following abilities:
  • At 1st level: A Red Monk is at +1 AC while able to freely move and wearing leather armor or lighter and are trained in Unarmed Fighting. They may use a 1d2-1/1d2-1/1d4-1 attack routine when not using a weapon.
  • At 2nd level: Red Monks are at +1 AC and +1 Saves vs. Chaotic creatures
  • At 3rd level: A Red Monk’s Unarmed attack routine increases to 1d3-1/1d3-1/1d6-1.
  • At 4th level: A Red Monk becomes immune to all forms of fear, including magical fear.
  • At 5th level: A Red Monk’s Unarmed attack routine increases to 1d3-1/1d3-1/1d8-1.
  • At 6th level: A Red Monk becomes immune to all forms of disease, including magical diseases.
  • At 7th level: A Red Monk is at +2 AC while able to freely move and wearing leather armor or lighter. A Red Monk’s Unarmed attack routine increases to 1d4-1/1d4-1/1d8-1.
  • At 8th level: A Red Monk becomes immune to all poisons, including magical poisons.
  • At 9th level: A Red Monk’s Unarmed attack routine increases to 1d4-1/1d4-1/1d10-1.
  • At 13th level: A Red Monk is at +3 AC while able to freely move and wearing leather armor or lighter
Red monks must have at least 13 in all prime requisites in order to get the +5% to experience. They must also have a STR and WIS of 16 to get the +10% bonus.

Reaching 9th Level: A Red Monk may build a fortified church.

0 XP ..... Level 1
2,450 ..... Level 2
4,900 ..... Level 3
9,800 ..... Level 4
19,600 .... Level 5
39,200 .... Level 6
80,000 .... Level 7
160,000 .... Level 8
280,000 .... Level 9
400,000 .... Level 10
520,000 .... Level 11
640,000 .... Level 12
760,000 .... Level 13
880,000 .... Level 14

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Meditating on Grappling (5e + B/X)

Over at B/X Blackrazor, JB ran an adventure for his kids and shared a little house rule he uses with multiple attacks:
My (simple) house rule gives creatures with multiple attacks one attack roll per round versus a maximum number of opponents equal to its multiple attacks...so the [carrion] crawler (for example) would be able to attack up to eight opponents, but regardless it would make only one attack per character per round. This is something I've been doing for a while now, and I find it works well in practice
This got me thinking about how I might express this idea in context of the Advantage/Disadvantage system from 5e (because I really want to see how many applications this mechanic can have). My starting point is an old-standby in the OSR and was even codified in S&W Complete:
Just as shields improve armor class by 1, fighting two-handed grants a +1 to damage rolls . . . and fighting with a weapon in each hand gives a +1 to hit. (Note that fighting with two weapons does not actually give two separate attacks; it just increases the likelihood of landing a successful blow.)
So, multiple attacks don’t result in extra die-rolls, but rather in a bonus to-hit. Why not give advantage instead? Thus, the carrion crawler in JB’s example would get one attack, but would roll two dice and use the higher of the two.

Since we are already going down this rabbit hole, shield-fighting should do the opposite. Rather than affecting AC, having a shield puts attackers at a disadvantage, meaning that they would roll two dice and take the lower of the two results. This advantage would be cancelled out by either multiple attacks or flanking.

Two-handed weapons, therefore, should have advantage on damage rolls.

This all leads to grappling, the bane of every D&D combat ruleset. The reason for this is rather simple: combat in D&D is very abstract, which is why multiple attacks can equal a bonus to-hit (two-weapon wielding in S&W) or an advantage as in my musings above. Grappling, by its very nature is . . . not. Thus, once anyone tries to go down the road of specificity and handle grappling it gets messy.

The above concepts for using advantage/disadvantage suggest a nice and simple abstraction for grappling:

Anyone can grapple. A successful attack roll indicates that grappling is taking place and both the attacker and target are now at a disadvantage. Thus, anyone attacking those currently grappling gets to roll two dice and chose the higher of the two and those grappling must now roll two dice and take the lower of the two if they wish to make an attack. This can only work on creatures that are larger than the attacker at the Referee’s discretion.

This rule could also work for shield bashing, possibly even cancelling out the disadvantage the attacker gets for grappling because of the shield (though they would lose the defensive capabilities of the shield).

I am currently play testing these ideas with a summer-time  campaign with my kids. The first time it came into play was an encounter with a ghoul. Having shields made the encounter survivable and hammered the point that attacking with advantage and a paralyzing touch is just as nasty as three attacks per round with a paralyzing touch.

Saturday, June 3, 2017

Saintly Saturday: St. Alexis the Metropolitan of Moscow and Wonderworker of All Russia

I must admit, this is not the Feast of St. Alexis the Metropolitan of Moscow and Wonderworker of All Russia. HIs main feast is on February 12th and the Uncovering of his Relics is celebrated on May 20th (aka two weeks ago). I had been thinking of getting back into writing Saintly Saturdays because of St. Alexis, but life happened. So, today I will pretend I was on top of things and write a little about St. Alexis.

By a little, I really mean a little because there are tons of stories I could tell but don’t have the time or space for so I want to actually tell the story of how I met St. Alexis because not only is the experience ripe for inspiration with RPGs but it is an experience that you can have yourself.

I have spent a lot of time in hospitals the last several years having nothing to do but wait. So I searched far and wide for things that would not only pass the time, but do so in a way that would not sicken or depress me. One of the movies I found was call The Horde.



This is a Russian-made film based on an event that actually happened to St. Alexis when he personally went to placate The Horde, aka the Mongolian Empire. The film is gorgeous, haunting and fascinating. I particularly love two aspects of it:

  • Unlike so much of the stuff being made for American screens both big and small it is sympathetic to a Christian world view.
  • The narrative is written primarily from the perspective of the Mongolians. The crisis is theirs, not St. Alexis’. Their solution to the problem involves summoning the Sorcerer of Moscow.

While watching the movie, I didn’t realize it was a movie about an actual saint. It wasn’t until the movie was over that I went scrambling across the interwebs to find the life of St. Alexis and realized that this movie pulled a moment of his life to put on film. A rare thing and well worth your time.

From an RPG perspective, it paints the cleric as a sorcerer and presents an alien and frightening world that St. Alexis must enter. I might add, that despite the weirdness of the world presented, the fundamental humanity of it all is never lost. There a ton of ideas and images to be lifted from this movie that can translate wonderfully into an RPG world. For example, just the image of the painted faces of some of the Mongols. How cool would it be to integrate that kind of face painting into a fantasy culture?

So, see the movie. Encounter St. Alexis. Be inspired.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

St. Justin the Philosopher and Deities & Demi-Gods

It has been quite some time since I’ve regularly blogged about the saints and RPGs. Today is the Feast of St. Justin the Philosopher and he let me know that I should get back into the habit, at least once in awhile.

As his moniker suggests, St. Justin was a philosopher, but he was unsatisfied with all of the various attempts by secular thinkers to explain life, the universe and everything. He kept trying this and that until he encountered an old man that told him he would find Truth in the Gospel. In Christianity, St. Justin found the philosophy he had always longed for.

He opened a school in Rome, wrote two Apologetic Letters to the Roman Emperor defending Christianity among other works and was eventually martyred with several of his students in A.D. 165.



Before I get into the meat of this post, I do want to share a hymn sung on this feast that names St. Justin’s fellow martyrs:
Godly Justin great before the Lord, Peon the brave athlete, Valerion, and Chariton the wise, Charito, Evelpistus, and Hierax great of fame now have dyed in their very blood a bright and divine robe for the Sov'reign Lord of all; and being clad therewith, they all stand together rejoicing with the Angels’ hosts in the Heavens at the throne of Christ, the mighty King of all.
My RPG mind reads this and envisions a verse from a bard’s tale about a mighty group of adventurers to inspire and embolden a group of mud-drenched soldiers or to entertain a tavern full of people drinking mead. And talk about some great names! Peon the Athlete, Valerian the Wise, Hierax the Great. Surely these inspire at least an NPC or two.

Back in 2010, I wrote a post on Deities & Demi-Gods, which irked some folks because I took the position that it is good and right that the various pantheons of pagans gods and goddesses should have stats like monsters. I even have a Saintly Saturday post on St. Justin re-iterating that POV using St. Justin’s own words.

Well, here I am again drawn in by the words I find in the hymns of the Orthodox Church which support the view that pagan gods are really just demons dressed up as deities in order to pull the wool over humanity’s collective eyes:
When the chill of ignorance held sway over all creation because of the wanton spite of the foe, and the hoards of demons were adored and served as gods, then with willing and eager heart, O glorious Martyrs, you made chill deception cease through the most fervent heat of your burning zeal and divine faith, when you poured your blood out in longing for Him that poured out His Blood upon the Cross.
Again, in my RPG mind this screams dark fantasy where city states ruled by demons and their cultists dominate the world and the PC heroes must grind away in hopes of bringing some dim light of hope to a world of shadows . . . I sense another bout of Gamer ADD coming on.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Gamer ADD: Underneath the Haunted Keep

When creating a potential mega-dungeon, I like to not only come up with a history of the place, but a side-view in order to get a handle on what i can expect of the place. So here is a starting side-view of the Haunted Keep:


The Rotating Room is a trap of sorts that leads unwary parties into the False Tombs and likely to their doom. The Vault of the Dawnbringer used to be part of the Tomb of Queen Mabh, but was shifted over time. When the Tower was built, the vault was found and sealed with a secret entrance. I like the possibilities of weirdness due to the angle of the floor. The Tomb Of Queen Mabh has no physical entrance and can only be accessed via magic. The Underground River connects The Corrupted Roots, The Well, The Undercroft of Alberic and The Vault of the Dawnbringer.