Wednesday, 29 December 2010

Role-Playing Futures

There's been a conversation going on at the RPGsite forum about the possibility of adapting social mechanics from other games into D&D. This suggestion spun off from another, rambling discussion about what if anything can save D&D 4th edition from its less than stellar sales figures. Based on a Wizards market survey from 1999 that segments the tabletop RPG market, Ryan Dancey (architect of the Open Game License) thinks that the players who just want to hack and slash or play cool characters have been lost to MMOs, and games need to focus their rules on the other motivations, like story play.

Well, I have bad news for the tabletop RPG market. You can do a perfectly good story and character driven game without selling a single rulebook, die or figurine. Thousands of fans have been doing this for years now online. Their "sourcebooks" are popular anime/manga or fantasy fiction series. I hope to soon have a guest article or two about this interesting scene that may be one future of roleplaying.

Really, what we know as a role-playing game wraps an unstructured character interaction and problem-solving system around a quite structured combat and adventure game core. I'll say it again: you don't need to structure the social game with rules for it to happen. Thinking you that do, as a tabletop game publisher ... turning to the dark and clever arts of the Forge school of social mechanic design, in hope of breaching the mass market ... sorry guys, that's like being a ragtime piano roll publisher in the 1920's and thinking that you can overcome the wireless and phonograph by getting more into Stravinsky and Schoenberg.

(I mean, I handle live theory for a living, as an academic. I know the temptation to believe that by having the coolest theory you can master praxis. But it ain't necessarily so.)

I like the hybrid of improv and rules because it lets people participate on different levels. I think Zak intuits this too, in his recent must-read post about creativity in rock bands and gaming groups. I realize other people may lean more toward pure rules, or pure improv, and that's fine. Imagine if the previous generation of Fletcher Pratt naval wargame players had butted in on the D&D generation, demanding Wellsian skill-fire procedures and ballroom-sized dungeons, dammit! I don't want to be that dead hand of the past.

From the industry side, the money is obviously to be made from selling an "official" structure of rules and paraphernalia; people are not going to pay a red cent for something they can just do with their friends on line using shared canon knowledge from media they have already consumed. The real question is not market segmentation, but how you adapt a game to the new generation of users, where people spend a lot of time on-line just because it's convenient, and want their face-to-face activities to be short, well-defined and conclusive.

That's my opinion, anyway. But now I put it to you: What would you do if you were running Wizards of the Coast right now?

Saturday, 25 December 2010

Six Questions for Christmas

Stuck on an idea for an adventure location, dungeon level, or what have you? Here's my Yuletide present for you: the SIX QUESTIONS TABLE.

Roll 3 d6 of different colors on this table for each adventure location. Let's call them white, black, and red.

The white die is something about the area that is generally known or easily found out.
The black die is something unknown about the area.
The red die is false information or appearance about the area, that hides a different reality.

Each number on the dice sends you to a row of this table, where another d6 is rolled; for the red die, roll twice on its row, the black die for the false reality and the white die for the true one.

A roll of 6 (except as HOW) always means "none of the above; invent your own."

1: WHO: a being that rules the area.
1 = Warlord; 2 = Wizard; 3 = Priest/cult; 4 = Monster; 5 = Extraplanar being

2. WHAT: a thing that defines the area.
1 = Treasure; 2 = Magic Item; 3 = Knowledge; 4 = Portal/Key/Map; 5 = Magic/Sacred Place

3. WHERE: special features throughout the area.
1 = Fire; 2 = Water; 3 = Natural/Rough; 4 = Worked/Elaborate; 5 = Plants/Growth

4. WHEN: roll again on the 6 Questions for something that was formerly true of the area. If you roll 4 again, use this table:
1 = Was a mine; 2 = Was a temple; 3 = Was a fortress; 4 = Was a settlement; 5 = Was a tomb.

5. WHY: the use of the area
1 = To imprison; 2 = To produce; 3 = To protect; 4 = To learn; 5 = To store

6. HOW: the working and nature of the area's perils
1 = By machinery; 2 = By magic; 3 = By nature; 4 = By brute force; 5 = By superhuman skill

Example: I roll a white 6 (HOW), black 4 (WHEN), red 1 (WHO).

My roll under the white HOW is "By machinery."
My re-roll for the black WHEN is 5: WHY, then 6. Creatively, I decide it was formerly used "to destroy."
The red, deceptive WHO die turns up a 4 - "monster" for appearances and a 3 - "priest/cult" for reality. 

I decide that the legend of the place speaks of a giant monster, The Gnasher, who dwells in the middle of a vast cave system filled with perilous machinery. In reality, The Gnasher is the object of worship by a secretive cult of troglodytes left over from the place's former, unknown function as the wrecking yard of an advanced civilization. The trogs keep the machinery oiled and working.


Tuesday, 21 December 2010

Folk Saints: St. Hermas

St. Hermas, clad in dragonscale, gifts a loyal adventurer with cash and loot.
Yes, the pious wanderer prays to the canonical St. Seraphina of the Wandering Stars. But the quest for adventure and treasure in Mittellus has led to the popularity of the folk-saint Hermas, wherever chancers gather to wrest long-lost treasures from the oblivion of the earth.

Hermas, so the legend goes, was a fearless soldier in the North in the times of Invictus and Amalthea. He was anointed into the Revelation by Amalthea herself, and performed many useful services of a special nature for them and their followers. In the wars against the monsters of the Far North that followed the death of Amalthea, Hermas preferred to stay off the battlefield, conducting perilous infiltrations at long odds with only a hand-picked band of misfit comrades.

The tales told of him are as many as the notched and worn copper pennies that fill a fifty-pound sack. How he killed an ogre with a nail; reversed the flow of a river and drowned a whole kobold lair; made a false prophet tear his own head off in a game of dares and forfeits; convinced a dragon to yield its cache, one coin at a time.

True to form, his final adventure was as audacious as it was doomed. Finding a doorway to Hell, he slew devils left and right before finally meeting his martyrdom at the hands of the Evil One. In some versions of the legend, he tricked the Devil by offering his own soul in exchange for a companion's, knowing himself to be incorruptible; then fought to get it back, achieving that goal just before he died. Therefore he is also known as Rescuer and Ransomer of Souls.

As a folk-saint, Hermas appeals to adventurers, highwaymen, smugglers and other enacters of desperate deeds. His symbol is the X of crossed swords, and he is often depicted wearing dragonscale armor, raising two swords with mounds of treasure at his feet. His cult is controversial in the Church; some tolerate it, seeing it as a way to keep otherwise unreachable individuals thinking of the World Beyond, while others damn Hermas as a fiction and pagan relic who encourages theft and murder in a holy name. Those of the tolerant persuasion often pair Hermas with the canonical saint Seraphina in their oaths and prayers.

Many shrines and temples to the Saint have been erected by wealthy adventurers, and it is there that his powers manifest directly, for he has no holy order. Such a shrine will always have an object by which a band of adventurers can swear the Oath to St. Hermas. The Oath's form of words varies but usually enforces cooperation and fair sharing among the band, with oathbreakers subject to supernatural comeuppance of a dire and unspecified nature.

The Saint brings ruin to breakers of his oath.

Some shrines also feature small practice dungeons, cemeteries for adventurers killed in the line of duty, shops or training halls where affiliated professionals sell goods and services of interest to adventurers, or libraries where the collected wisdom of explorers and warriors can be read for a fee. Many are the stories of small and capricious miracles the Saint has performed in his shrines to reward the faithful and generous. His word and gospel is that of earned prosperity, and that alone is enough to earn him his steady following.

(Info on the historical St. Hermas here. Often confused with St. Hermes.)

Monday, 20 December 2010

Death and Aftermath

Knights, samurai and other warrior elites know that the point of life is not just to live well, but to die well. Adventure games, though, typically give no rewards in themselves for a good death. Nevertheless, the recent heroic self-sacrifice of one of my campaign's characters gives room to illustrate how death may be given its consolations, both through mechanics and gameplay.

The game referee has to project a difficult illusion. On the one hand, the adventure must be seen to be gripping. Death and serious consequences must be seen to lurk around every corner, or the delve becomes little more than a parody of work, dungeoneers clocking in, clocking out, and collecting their haul.

On the other hand, character death really sucks. I'll leave it to Trollsmyth to spell out some reasons why, but it's no fluke that it's essentially vanished from commercial online gaming, and my Niecely Informant doesn't see much call for it in her own freeform online endeavors, either. For people who don't have a lot of time to spend playing, the grind back up to reasonable power levels can be very demoralizing. "Old school hardcore" is all very well and good, but it's a philosophy devised in an age when people gamed two weekday nights and all weekend.

One way I cushion the sting of death is to award half the old character's experience points to any new character the player rolls up. In fact, if I'd set out thinking from the start, I'd use this rule to separate good deaths from bad - a heroic or selfless death would allow a respawn at 2/3 xp instead of 1/2 xp. Interestingly enough, Ephemera's player (my wife) has rolled up another wizard, even down to the same main Sleep spell, so it's not too much trouble to pass the new character off as a student from the same school ...

Another way is the aforementioned negative HP tables, that dole out the threat of maiming or incapacitation as a less serious gradation of death. Sometimes the threat of consequences is enough. This goes even for systems like 2nd edition with its highly generous death's door rules - if the GM is plotting the campaign world well enough, failure in a mission will feel like the loss of a limb, as the consequences on the PC's allies and acquaintances make themselves clear.

Barring any further mechanical tweaks, this kind of social GMing can go some ways to showing the consequences of a good death. Ephemera's sacrifice has so impressed the man she saved, Fergus, that he has foresworn his bandit ways and with a few of his fellows has been sworn into the Trossley Village Guard and given domain over the newly opened east gate (facing the Castle). The bandits slept by her spell were trussed by the survivors and taken to justice - all are due to be hanged, even the Young Fergus, after a scene in which he rebuffed his older self. And Ephemera's mentor in Utherton, Joya, has been profoundly affected and is showing the party survivors a level of help she would have only given her student.

Ephemera has been given burial in the tomb-wall that lies in the garden in the back of the Temple of St. Hermas. Who knows? It may be that her name and legend will be enough to secure the party a more favored status in the town, as everyone awaits the tide of hungry treasure seekers ....

So how do you handle character death? Are the adventurers just leaves on the wind, rootless treasure seekers to be cut down and spring up again? Or does their death carry some meaning ... and in what way?

Sunday, 19 December 2010

Trossley: End of Innocence

Last week's session was a tense, hard and brutal slog with one of the three PCs dead at the end and the others unconscious, saved only by NPC allies.

With the bullying behavior of the Skull Stackers bandits dominating the Gray Courtyard rampart overlooking the dungeon entrance, a shadow was cast over the prospect of dungeoneering. But now is a good time to mention the NPC Fergus, a bandit from the rival Invisibles gang and veteran of the old days of the Castle, who had been hiding his cohorts in the illusion-concealed and empty Castle ruins.

What are the consequences of an empty dungeon that suddenly restocks itself for mysterious reasons?

Well, Fergus was disconcerted by the appearance of his dead comrades - and, amazingly, even his younger self - when the Skull Stackers gang "respawned." One session prior, he had turned up in town, having fled the Castle in the night after it reappeared and ... came alive.

This session Fergus pulled himself together and, urged on by the priest and Mayor, proposed that the party join the Invisibles in immediate hostile action against the Stackers. Fortuitously - as it turned out - one of my frequent "wouldn't it be cool if this happened" die rolls worked out and the woodland warrior NPC Burnsteen was back in town and eager to join the fight.

Approaching the redoubt of the Invisibles, Fergus was hailed by the small garrison left behind, as his rival for leadership, Brom, had gone foraging in secret with the main strength of the band. The two sides were facing each other on opposite sides of a tower with two doors and adjacent wall, neither side daring to step in the tower or make for the top. Now with the numbers and magic, the party decided to rush into the breach. The other tower door was open, the Skulls nowhere to be seen. Most of the force quickly gained the top floors of the tower, with two Invisibles bandits stationed at ground level - just in time to be swept forth by the charge of the fearsome half-orc fighter Grainne leading the Skull Stackers band.

The ground floor friendlies panicked and ran, Grainne chasing them out into the further court but then retreating after being peppered by missile fire from tower and battlement. The dwarf Grumpka held the stairs against the assault of the axe-wielding foeman lieutenant, while shooters behind and to the side took their angles as best they could, screened by Fergus. Once again, Grumpka's bad luck was good luck as she got downed to exactly zero, earning only a concussion rather than any roll for lasting effects. Fergus and shooters downed the axeman, and then Grainne took to the stairs, swinging her mighty two-handed sword, her armor of strong viridescent goblin-metal protecting her to an exemplary extent.

Fergus took a wound, quickly healed by the holy militant Boniface, and then counterstruck for a critical that faced Grainne with the option between maximum damage and falling from the stair. I chose the fall for her, and then Fergus made an exceptional morale roll that had him leaping on the hulking amazon, sword blade choked in gloved hand for an up-close brawl!

It was then, as Grainne's followers crowded around and tried to pull Fergus off, that the wizard Ephemera made her brave and selfless choice to try to save Fergus. Descending the perilous stair, she won initative and cast her sleep spell. All but Grainne, even Fergus, fell asleep... and getting to her feet, the half-orc won initiative, overtook the frail spellcaster, and dealt out instant death.

Grainne then leapt up the stairs. There fell Boniface - left arm out of commission for a week, by my new negative hits table. There fell the dull-witted Balm - loss of left hand, by the same table. Cordoon, Callow and Burnsteen finally faced her, and Burnsteen finished her with a well-placed sword thrust.

I'll finish with the "death & dismemberment" table I'm using, working off similar efforts by Trollsmyth and others, but leaning more toward Norman Harman or Eric Minton's bloodier versions.

A blow that takes a player character or follower to zero HP results in unconsciousness for 2d6 rounds.

A blow that takes the character or follower below zero HP requires a roll on this table, using 2d6 with -1 for each point the character finds him/herself below zero after the wound is inflicted. Yes, this one is a real killer .. if you roll boxcars at -1, you're well advised to play possum, as the next hit will almost certainly kill you. It's somewhat tempered by the "unconscious at 0" rule, though.

2 or lower: Instant death blow to random vital area.
3: Fatal wound to random vital area. Will die in 1d6 turns unless Cure Critical Wounds is applied.
4: Severed or crushed random limb. Will bleed to death in 3d6 rounds unless tourniquet, cauterization or Cure Critical Wounds is applied. Cannot act for 2d6 rounds due to shock. Limb is permanently unusable.
5-6 Serious wound to random vital area. Cannot act for 2d6 days or until Cure Serious Wounds is cast specifically to remove the wound, not for hit points - the unusability is independent of hit points.
7-8 Serious wound to random limb. Cannot act for 1d6 rounds due to shock. Limb unusable for 2d6 days or until Cure Serious Wounds is cast specifically to remove the wound, not for hit points - the unusability is independent of hit points.
9 Light wound to random vital area. Cannot act for 1d6 rounds.
10 Light wound to random limb. Cannot use limb for 1d6 rounds.
11+ Fight on you lucky (?) weasel! No effect.

Limbs are rolled on d6/d6: 1 = eye (1-2) ear (3-4) nose (5-6); 2= left fingers (1-2) hand (3-4) arm (5-6); 3= right fingers/hand/arm; 4 = non-vital torso wound that affects use of both legs; 5 = left foot (1-2) leg (3-6); 6 right foot/leg.

Vitals are rolled on d6: 1 crown/brain 2 throat 3 heart 4 lungs 5 guts 6 kidneys or other.

Next post, the aftermath of the slaughter and some more general comments on PC death.

Thursday, 16 December 2010

D20 and Gelatinous Cube Breed

And their baby will either roll the exact number you want, or eat a hole in your palm.

(start video at 2:00 for best effect)

Wednesday, 15 December 2010


When two groups meet by chance in classic D&D games, there is a chance for each to surprise the other. Breaking it down, what factors might be going into this?
  • Lack of awareness: One side might have lost attention - sleeping, eating, reading, sexing. One side might be blind and deaf in its environment, like a lightless swimmer under dark waters.
  • Lack of concealment: One side is giving itself away - taking light into the dark, noise into the silence, laughing, gambling, brawling.
  • Exceptional awareness:  One side might be waiting by the door to ambush oncomers all day and all night. One side might have ESP, or heat vision, or elven ears.
  • Exceptional concealment: One side might be hiding behind a rock, on the ceiling; invisible.
The typical situation of a party going into the dungeon is gross lack of concealment, with naked lamps and clanking armor; but high vigilance; forging on into unknown territory.

The typical situation of bored watchmen is of greater concealment, but lower vigilance. Undead watchmen are more vigilant. Gambling, shouting watchmen are less concealed.

Nope. No dice roll needed.
Most surprise situations can be resolved by detailed enough setting notes about what the guards are up to, whether the vampire is stalking prey or playing the pipe organ, whether the spider is hiding in the webs or scuttling along the floor. For situations where the DM wants more spontaneity, a monster vigilance roll might be needed to see whether the monsters are in a position to ambush, or are giving away their own position. The chance to spot the ambush can be handled as a passive perception check (spotting, plus listening if the ambushers are moving). If the ambushing party has a hide skill and successfully uses it, the perception check gets more difficult.

To determine the enemy's disposition randomly, roll 1d6 for each individual, up to 5; the remaining individuals have similar profiles to the 5 rolls already made, in the order rolled.

Undisciplined groups and individuals:
1: vigilant; 2-3: distracted; 4: distracted and making noise; 5-6: asleep.
Disciplined groups and individuals: 
1: ambushing already; 2-3: vigilant; 4: distracted; 5-6: asleep (at least one member of a disciplined group of 2 or more will be vigilant)
1-2: ambushing already; 3-4: vigilant; 5-6 asleep.
1-2: ambushing already; 3-6 vigilant.
Vigilant to the range of their senses, unless in a situation to ambush (such as an ooze dropping from above.)

Example: Our group approaches a right turn in the passage, torches blazing. 100 feet down the corridor is an open guardroom where three undisciplined kobolds are lounging. Will the kobolds hear the clank of armor and see the reflection of light on the wall? The roll for the trio is 1, 6, 6, and the signs of the party approaching are pretty blatant, so the one vigilant kobold notices without having to roll, and scuttles over to shake and wake the other sleeping two.

This makes a much quieter noise (but can't be seen)  so I give the two party members in front a secret roll on their d6-based listen skills, one has a listen skill of 1 and the other has 2. The one with 2 rolls a 2 and hears some scuttling, faint groaning and whispering ahead and to the right. Round 1 is over.

Round 2, the party stops, hides the torch behind a shield and sends their infravision-having, non-clanking dwarf to look down the passage. The vision only goes 30' so he sees nothing but passage. His listen skill is also a bare 1, but he rolls it, so he hears some more noises of blades being drawn, buckles being buckled, and footsteps. The kobolds are arming themselves. At this point, if a party member with a fast move and a torch were to run screaming ahead, he would probably catch the two dressing kobolds, if not the vigilant one, by surprise. But no, they go cautiously. And the kobolds get one more move, unheard, to set up their ambush in the corner of the guardroom just right of where the passage comes in.

After a couple of rounds creeping down the passage in full defense mode, the party reaches the entrance of the guardroom, then state that they will swing out quickly and attack to the sides. Because they are wresting surprise back from the kobolds (at some risk to themselves!) I deny the kobolds the surprise attack they would have gotten, and normal initiative is rolled.

If the players had not shown guts like that, though, I would have judged the kobolds to be perfectly hidden behind the corner, so the front right member must make two successful rolls to "notice detail" (my proxy skill for reacting quickly to a visual stimulus) in order to deny the surprise attack prior to initiative.

The moral? Time is not always on the party's side; and the cautious approach won't always give the best results. This insight is the best cure for over-cautious party creep I know.

Sunday, 12 December 2010


Alexis recently asked an excellent question: how realistic are the "standing orders" players give DMs about the attention and discipline of their characters in the game? The example he gave was when players claim that their characters keep to a perfect fighting formation during an eight-hour hike. But this could easily be extended to other common claims:

"By default, we are always checking carefully for traps ahead of us."
"Here is our standard procedure to deal with opening a door ..."
"Just to let you know, every time we stay in an inn we post watches, sleep in our armor, and spike the door."

But in reality, how good is human attention? Not that great. Psychologists have found that vigilance and self-control are limited resources, easily depleted. The tough part, though, is making this limited resource an interesting factor in an adventure game.

Some DMs just work with the standing order. Like DMs who overlook encumbrance, they eliminate player decisions about attention as a resource, in order to simplify play. This kind of game assumes a certain amount of vigilance at all times that's a baseline for trap detection rolls, surprise checks, and other such tests of passive perception. It also requires the DM to hold the line and not let players achieve any greater vigilance even if they swear up and down they are being extra-careful. That chance to be surprised, to miss a trap or a secret door, represents the weakness of the characters' attention, just as the chance to surprise represents the weakness of their foes' attention.

Some DMs use "player skill" to simulate character vigilance. "If you do it, you have to say it." This means that player boredom substitutes for character boredom. If the ritual of verbally checking every square foot of space becomes too tedious for the player, that simulates the character slipping up. Although consistent with the Old School dogma of substituting player skill for rules, I'm not convinced that this one meets the ultimate criterion of gaming - fun - in the same way that using player skill for problem solving and social interaction would. Taken to the extreme, this method puts optimal play for survival at odds with enjoyment and spontaneity. It is really only feasible, as I see it, under a regime where the DM avoids placing meaningless "zap traps" and hidden compartments everywhere. Player skill becomes more meaningful when there are clues to when players should be alert, and demonstrated safe or boring spaces where they don't have to be alert.

Player skill also becomes more meaningful when there are in-game choices to be made. Just requiring a "say it to do it" approach to attention doesn't really work because it trades an out-of-game resource (time and interest) for an in-game resource (safety). In computer games this kind of tradeoff is known as "grinding." What in-game resources, though, can be traded for vigilance?

The classic answer is "game time." Searching high and low as you proceed eats up time in the game, and there are many ways to make time count. Ticking scenario clocks, wandering monster checks, and rival parties are just a few of the most popular. Time pressure, in fact, is one of the most effective force multipliers for the bad guys, forcing risks that a smart party would not ordinarily take.

A more intriguing possibility, but one I've never seen implemented in any gaming system, is to treat attention as the limited resource it is. Optimal play of an adventure game typically places no value on the characters being able to relax in a space they consider safe, let alone any other creature comforts. As a result, power gamers run their characters as ascetic paranoiacs, always ready for battle, always "looking carefully for traps" even in the privy of the local tavern. In reality, someone with this attitude would be at risk for some kind of stress disorder.

A rough model for a mental resource game system might involve the following:
  • Each character has 2 hours of sustained vigilance in them for any 4-hour waking period, plus or minus a half hour for each point of Wisdom bonus or penalty they have. 
  • Vigilance is consumed by attending carefully in any given direction. If advancing while scanning for both near and far dangers (i.e. traps and potential foes ahead), it is consumed at double time. Players should keep records of whether their characters are vigilant or not, and the time consumed this way.
  • Staying vigilant beyond the basic time is possible, but incurs a "debt" of negative hours - stress, if you will - which can only be recouped in an area seen as completely safe. So, if you are staying in an inn and posting watch overnight, that doesn't count because the party is not treating the area as safe. 
  • Consequences of vigilance debt can include temporary loss of Intelligence, Dexteriy and Charisma - one point per point in debt - and perhaps even random insanity-like symptoms when the negative debt reaches an amount equal to the original number of hours.
I'll leave it to the comments and maybe another post to discuss the merits and flaws of such a system, and how exactly vigilance - however ruled or defined - might interact with randomly determined surprise.

Thursday, 9 December 2010

Into the Dungeon!

Three different runs of the same dungeon now - my Level 1 for the Castle of the Mad Archmage.

Four ramps going down. Each party chooses the same ramp.

And two out of three choose the same door out of three after that, ending up in the well room guarded by armored kobolds. Both times the charge was led by an angry dwarf ... both times a kobold fell in the well. (To be fair, that well is kind of like the proverbial Act I pistol.) This time, the Trossley group had a sleep spell on tap, so they fared much better against the kobolds.

There was some good old exploring, hacking and slashing tonight - not much treasure but lots of creatures fell. I don't want to discuss too much but there are interesting things brewing with various groups in the Castle and dungeons. The 2-dimensional reaction/morale table is proving very useful, and it's also fun (if a little mind-wracking) to fill in what's going on behind the scenes in the Castle while the adventurers are off healing and resting. It definitely makes an adventure location come to life when it is filled with scheming, strategizing individuals and factions.

Highlight of the evening: the players, already somewhat battered and out of useful spells, are being pelted with rocks from a higher battlement by a group of bandits after a bullying request for treasure was met with a contemptible show of copper. One of the bandits rolls a 1 ... I rule that his fumble consists of throwing too enthusiastically from on top of the battlement, from where he slips and falls, taking a mortal amount of damage. A small moral victory, and why not, I awarded XP for the kill.

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

Folk Saints: Introduction

My interest in folk saints, and folk-beliefs about Catholic religious figures more generally, began with the Miracle of the Paella. On a visit to Morella, an inland hill-castle town in northern Valencia, I saw the following plaque on a house wall:

It illustrates the miracle said to have occurred when St. Vincent Ferrer, a Catalan Dominican preacher who lived around the turn of the 15th century, visited Morella. His hostess turned out to be insane. Ashamed that she could not offer good meat to the Saint, she slaughtered her young son and served him up, Valencian style, in a paella. The Saint fortunately recognized the meat for what it was, and resurrected the lad in the middle of the dish.

Anyone who spent as much time as my young self poring over the D'aulaires' Greek mythology book would quickly know this tale as a variant of Tantalus' sacrifice of his son Pelops to the Gods. Like the Saint, the gods identified the meat on offer and resurrected the boy. Many other pagan stories live on in European folklore about the saints and other religious figures. In Portugal, Bartholomew is revered by sailors, carries a trident, and is attended by a strange sea monster, like Poseidon. The existence across Europe of Black Madonnas has been seen as a continuation of various cthonic and nature cults, while the dark Saint Sarah of the Gypsies bears an explicit connection to the Hindu goddess Kali. And let's not forget this fellow, who's come a long way from being a Lycian bishop.

Other folk-saints are mainly legendary figures, including the beloved St. Christopher, who was expelled from the calendar by the Vatican in 1969, and has been analyzed as a sort of combination of Hercules and Hermes. Stranger still, some traditions paint Christopher as coming from a dog-headed race - the one pious gnoll on the planet? - not to mention the folk-saint who was actually a dog, Guinefort (see here for both). The legendary Wilgefortis or St. Uncumber was a woman who prayed to grow a beard so she would be liberated from having to marry - clearly this lady was no Dwarf! Another mythical female saint, Ursula, who supposedly led an army of 11,000 virgins to martyrdom, has been identified with legends of the Norse goddess Freya. Speaking of virgins (or not), the less said about the unspeakable Saint Foutin the better.

The hard life in Latin America has led to a flourishing of folk saints who, now more than ever, look after the poor and desperate. Such dubious characters as Mexico's Pancho Villa and Argentina's Evita Peron attract popular prayers. In the midst of the ruthless drug cartel wars of northern Mexico, some sentimental thugs - and many common folk - give offerings to the righteous bandit Jesus Malverde. Apart from historical figures being popularly canonized, other revered figures make their way in from obscure parts of the iconography. Leonard Cohen fans may be familiar with the Anima Sola, a lonely soul being released from purgatory. More eerie still is the modern-day cult of Santissima Muerte, a holy female figure of Death often represented by an actual skeleton, echoing the Aztec goddess Mictlancihuatl, who "grants blessings no real saint would approve."

Does your role-playing game feature characters who flit rootlessly from place to place, constantly exposed to death and danger, living hand-to-mouth in search of the next big score? Maybe they'd be tempted to make a small offering for the blessings of a righteous bandit, or to keep Death off their backs and on their enemies'. The folk-patron of adventurers in my world of Mittellus, St. Hermas, is up next in this series.

Sunday, 5 December 2010

Church World Triumphant

Of the three settings for D&D I proposed - the clericless Sorcery World, the polytheist Pantheon World, and the monotheist Church World - I chose the latter for my ongoing campaign. And I'm not regretting that choice.

Running off the D&D grid, with an old rule set, gives many freedoms. One that keeps getting spotlighted is the freedom to use all the red-blooded trappings of 1970's fantasy that were expunged in reaction to parental and Christian pressure groups. Demons, devils, half-orc assassin PCs, human sacrifices, naked lady pictures, naked lady human sacrifices ... Both Third Edition official content and Old School revivalism have produced intentionally notorious products, as returns of the repressed.

But ironically, another historical element purged from the game has never made such a loud comeback: the backdrop of medieval Christianity that gives us clerics, paladins, relics, and a spell list ripped straight from the Bible. In part, this is because the repression was self-imposed and subtle. No atheist or Jewish groups sought to expel D&D from schools because it promoted Christianity, even if the case that it promoted Satanism was equally ludicrous. The shift from a Church World of OD&D to a Pantheon World of 2nd Edition was gradual, and in keeping with the adoption of standard campaign settings, Greyhawk (especially the 1983 version) and Forgotten Realms. Those products, unlike the more open-ended 1980 Greyhawk, forced TSR's cards on the table regarding details of religion.

Uncensored knights from Valdemar Miniatures
With the Satanic panic stinging, it's easy to see why TSR skirted monotheism by the length of a ten-foot pole. Ever since Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake for daring to suggest that God had created other worlds than ours, the relationship of speculative fiction to Christianity has been questionable. Any fictional or counterfactual treatment risks offending a religion whose truths are deterministic and rooted in historical time (see here, Experiment 5).

The Catholic Tolkien and Anglican Lewis famously finessed this point by placing their tales, respectively, in a world of virtuous pagans, and a world where Christ was represented in a plain allegory. But presenting an alternate monotheistic Church was not a path easily followed as TSR got bigger and more accountable. The typical North American paralytic reaction then set in, as seen elsewhere when handling issues of sexuality and race: better to burn out and bowdlerize, than to discuss, risking offense and dissension. The "cleric" took on a life of its own as an ahistorical pagan-Christian hybrid who wasn't sacrificing animals and casting auguries so much as healing, healing, turning and healing, all in the name of, uh, Odin or someone like that.

With freedom restored through the return of powers to the gamer, I see no reason to observe the taboo any longer. A monotheistic world has certain advantages. The cleric class gets a lot simpler - no more domain spells, or god-weapon lists. Clerics stick together rather than worrying about whether they should fight each other. The competing concerns of Church and State, moral and temporal, add variety to power struggles without the need to factor in 18 Churches.

Working in folk beliefs that take the Church "halfway to paganism" in some places also add variety, and a further moral question of toleration versus orthodoxy. In fact, I'll be showing off some of the folk-saints of Mittellus in the next series of posts, who are very much inspired by popular beliefs in Europe that represent a syncretism of ancient gods and Christian saints - Voudoun for white folks, if you will.

What's more, I think a fantasy-historical version of the Church can be presented without offending either believers or nonbelievers. The nature and origin of miracles, salvation, and reality can be debated in-world, without the GM needing to pronounce ex cathedra, and the historical Christian church offers enough examples from saints to simoniacs that both the good and the bad can be explored.

But, as with everything from rulings improvisation to in-game romance, this approach requires a knowledgeable GM with a mature and balanced attitude. And that's not something that can be easily extracted from a supplement.

Thursday, 2 December 2010

Why's There A Dungeon Under Your City?

1. The city was flooded over 100 years ago. After the flood, the powers that be decided to raise the ground level 10-15 feet by importing massive amounts of earth. On top of the flood deposits, this buried - partially or completely - all the buildings in the flooded area. The underground rooms are the remains of completely buried buildings, cellars that once were ground floors, and tunnels that once were alleys and thoroughfares connecting them all. (Chattanooga, Tennessee)

2. The city is built on sandstone hills, with natural caverns underneath that were used for storage and cellars, and latter enlarged, connected, and linked with other chambers and complexes cut into the soft sedimentary rock. At one time or another the caverns have housed inns, taverns, breweries, bowling alleys, industrial shops, and sewage disposal. (Nottingham, England)

3. The city prospered at an amazing rate, but was hampered by natural barriers - rivers, gorges, steep rock faces. A bridge built across one of the dry gorges proved more popular as a place to settle under than to cross, owing to a superstitious incident that cursed the span in the eyes of the cityfolk.The bridge arches were walled and floored, and a series of vaults created, which held masses of the dregs of society living in appalling conditions. The vault-dungeon today is inhabited by a few degenerate hold-outs, the ghosts of murdered people, and whatever it was that caused the exodus of squatters some twenty years ago ... (Edinburgh, Scotland)

4. Followers of a persecuted religion needed a place to bury their dead. In the outskirts of the city, they tunnelled into deposits of soft tufa stone. A refuge in times of danger, these catacombs also housed rich treasures of devotional objects and grave goods. (Rome, Italy)

5. In the busy and disreputable seaport, captains who needed sailors could turn to gangs of waylayers, who used elaborate ruses and trapdoors to abduct able-bodied men. A network of tunnels, chambers and holding cells supported all kinds of kidnapping, forced prostitution and slavery. When contraband substances came to the city, the tunnels were not just the means of smuggling, but housed sordid vice dens where anything could be had ... for a price. (Portland, Oregon)

6. As the city grew, the stench grew intolerable until the king ordered a sewer to be dug. Later monarchs hired more and more sophisticated architects until the sewer network branched all over the city, on many levels, and with some tunnels big enough to drive a cart through. "Crime, intelligence, social protest, liberty of conscience, thought, theft, all that human laws pursue or have pursued, have hidden in this hole..." Yes, and rats. (Paris, France)

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

The Castle Is Open

This evening's session found the players cleaning the last few scrub polyp-monsters from the millhouse cellars and getting into a long, involved episode of dealing with the potentially toxic smoke from a disturbingly human-like mushroom they had shot in its little wrinkly face and set on fire.

They then headed into the other direction from Trossley, eastwards to investigate the loud noise from a couple of nights ago, and found that the Castle of the Mad Archmage had reappeared.

Carefully skirting the bastion from which the raucous sounds of suspected bandits wafted, our intrepid adventurers circumambulated nearly the whole dimensions of the pile. (When I roll for wandering monsters, a 2 rather than 1 on d6 indicates the sound, track, smell, or other clue to the monster, rather than the monster itself. Adds drama ... and lets the party go pick or avoid a fight if they want to.)

They next entered the one clear gate into the walls, at the low end of the huge slanting limestone rock hill whose surface the castle walls entirely bound. Passing through the gatehouse tower, they were attacked by a large black-widow spider as it rappeled down on its thread from the upper storey. After some confused misses on both sides, Grumpka the dwarf clove it asunder with her axe.

As the sun was getting low in the sky, it was decided to head back and head out the next day. Funny how Motley Tom chose to pitch his tent selling magic wares near the boarded-up east gate of the town ... almost as if he knew something about the coming increased popularity of that direction. And now Clem, the youngest son of the ten-foot pole magnate, is getting back into the game ...

So! It begins. I've added a castle "upper works" to the Cellars of the Castle Ruins that I was running this summer. The spider is an homage to the first encounter from Grendelwulf's very recently divulged sketch of Gygax's original first level to Castle Greyhawk, which I highly recommend as a historical document and a great example of Old School principles - seriously out of level monsters, groups of dwarves and elves to bargain with, trick rooms and secret doors a-plenty. Hey, if I'd had that to work from, maybe I wouldn't have written my own first level for the old Castle. But I'm happy with my own work and eager to get some use out of it.