I mentioned when I began this section that I used to have a D&D group at church and another at a progressive learning center where my son went to high school. During that time I would make a "holiday special" one shot to be played over break. In the spirit of the season, I thought I would share it's founding myth.
A couple of things are worth mentioning. This holiday is essentially a regional one affiliated with local legend more than a specific faith. There are two gods (or "gods" that are manifestations of a greater power) whose followers exist in the same region. While religion is sometimes used by one nation to attempt to assert control over other nations, it is generally understood by the common self-aware being that the true culprit in these conflicts is money and power rather than theology.
Anyway, I hope you like it and that it gives you ideas. It is just one take on the winter festival and the one-shot notes might make an appearance here before Advent is over. It doesn't look like I will have a chance to use it again for a while...
When Aaron Rhymer Stopped the Sun
The single most important holiday in the Wilds is the 9 day festival known as the “Season of the Sun” Held during the shortest days of the year, it commemorates the ancient legend of the poet/wizard Aaron Rhymer. Rhymer is a character that the people of the Wilds brought with them in the migration north, so he is equally important in both Karranite and Sandozian Folklore. While it is banned as heresy in the City of Sandoz, nearly every other community, regardless of their dominant faith tradition, holds some sort of celebration. Karran’s Arc and Free Port are particularly famous for their festivals. Many people dream of making the sometimes-arduous journey to be on one of these places for the holiday.
The Tale of Arcan and Rostaphar
The story is usually told as a poem, which is recited every night during the festival. It follows the travails of two young, star-crossed lovers named Alcan and Rostaphar who lived in a city “far far away” and a “long time ago”. Their parents were rivals in everything. They challenged each other in business and they strove for control of the town from the safety of their urban fortresses. To escape their parents, Alcan and Rostaphar would sneak out and meet in a private walled garden near an area that was considered “neutral territory” by the various factions. Nonetheless their parents caught wind of the situation and--their mutual hatred strangely bringing them together--they made a pact with each other that if their child was not home by dusk each day, they would kill that child and send the body to the other family as proof that the deed was done.
The couple was naturally frightened by this prospect so they agreed to meet one more time in the garden. However, they got so into their conversation that they lost track of time and realized that they wouldn’t make it home before dusk. This is where Aaron the Rhymer comes in.
The garden--as it turned out--was owned by Rhymer. Hearing the cries of dismay from his seat at the window of his second-floor study, Aaron rushed down to the garden to reassure the couple. He promised to stop the sun in the sky long enough for them to make it safely home. Of course, the couple returns the next night and the next so, predictably, Aaron find himself stopping the sun a little later every night as Alcan and Rostaphar squeeze out every moment they can with each other.
As time goes on, people in the town notice. The seasons seem to be moving in reverse! Astrologers start to worry, farmers rush to protect their crops, animals wake up from their hibernation. This, of course, could not be tolerated for long and Aaron found himself in an awkward situation. So he devised a plan.
He invited the parents of the couple over to dinner and arranged for them to find Alcon and Rostaphar in the garden. At that point, just as the parents were preparing to tear the youngsters asunder, Aaron the Rhymer reveals that it is, in fact, he who has stopped the sun and threatens to keep things that way if any harm befalls the couple. Facing that fearful prospect the parents realized that they were bested and imploded with rage.* The couple got married and unified the town, ushering a century of prosperity and peace.
The traditions vary depending on the area. However some remain standard throughout the Wilds. People decorate their houses with things found in nature, for example. In addition there are wandering bands of musicians and quite a bit of eating and drinking after dark (and therefore after fast-time, see below).
There is also a cycle of feasting and fasting. On the first day there is a great feast lasting well into the night. On the next 7 days the people fast during the day and eat after dark. It has been noted that the winter solstice is a rather convenient time for such a fast, but it does mean that almost everyone abides by it. During these days there is a cycle of staying up as late as possible and then sleeping in. On the final night the rhythm shifts again and there is a feast that begins at noon.
As previously mentioned, the entire (5-hour) epic poem is recited every day of the festival, beginning in the afternoon and ending well after dark, at whatever the largest public gathering place is in the area. In Karran’s Arc there are 9 long-time “houses” of citizens that sponsor a reading on their given day. Each has a special uniform and the competition to provide surrounding entertainment is stiff. Since food and drink are not allowed until dark, each house will bring their best beverages in barrels and perform the poem on top of them, using song and dance for interpretation. Once it is too dark to see the barrels are tapped, food is distributed, and the stage gets noticeably smaller.
In Free Port there are multiple readings and by tradition anyone passing by can be dragooned to continue the recitation (sponsored in this case directly by the guilds) . Again, kegs and crates of free food and drink are very much in evidence in an effort to attract the populace. For this reason--in every municipality--the Brewers Guild loves the Recitation and strives to cater it to the best of their abilities.
The tradition among the populace is to find creative ways to skip the first few hours, but most people--at least in Karran’s Arc and Free Port--can recite parts of the entire poem from memory.
The wealthy will sometime hold private recitations as well. It is a big deal to be invited to one, even though they can be deathly boring.
Entreating the Sun:
At dusk on the last night the entire community (or family, it varies) gathers at a high point and an elder recites the words that end the poem. “Love has stopped the Sun and love will make it move again”. If the sun stops and night is delayed the party continues. If it doesn’t stop and night comes, then the kids go to bed.
In recent memory the sun has just kept moving as it always has. There are legends (perpetuated by eccentric drunk old uncles) that the sun did stop once in recent memory and the so-called “shortest day” was an hour longer. No one believes them.
*Tradition says that when they parents imploded they did not die, but instead turned into Scantlings or “Mountain Trolls” which are not real trolls at all but instead resemble hideous misshapen gargoyles and are accustomed to living in cold dark places, like caves and sewers.
Well that is it for now. I may post more from this world as I really liked it and it would be nice to know that some of it lives in the ether. By the way, if you are interested in the learning center I talked about, here is a very non-D&D sermon I gave a year or two ago...
So it happened! We had session 1 of Paranormal Cowpunch. The brief synopsis is as follows...
The intrepid crew (Prospector Billy and Ripley) left El Dorado City and headed out for El Dorado County. They traveled as part of the crew for a regular stagecoach, staying a boarding houses and ranches on their way out of civilization. During that time they picked up some rumors. Turns out there is a strange mist that descends from time to time even though the climate doesn't sustain that much moisture. Also, some people noted seeing a stranger who seemed to smell faintly of salt water and fish, which is also strange since there is no ocean nearby. Some of the ranches appear to be closing as well for unclear reasons. The party is heading out to spend the season at the Lazy J Ranch outside of Gordon. People expressed interest and relief to learn that its proprietor, Dame Edna, is doing well after her husband dies a couple years back.
Anyway, they head out on the last leg of the journey. Their stagecoach if full. Among their companions are the driver, 15 year-old Reginald Weems, and two cowpunchers named Alice Rollinger and Lester Jenkins. There are also a number of more gentle passengers, including a charming gambler, an older couple, and two women who never quite got as fleshed out. They were two days out of Burned Bush Wells and then an indeterminate distance to Gordon. Some time in the afternoon they, too, experienced the mist and then found themselves in a running battle with red-eyed Dire Wolves. They and their companions made a break for a hill to take a stand there. Chaos ensues, Prospector Billy and Alice both get mauled but manage to hang on. Reginald also gets bitten but not nearly as badly. Ripley and Lester patch them up and--with Reginald bandaged and driving, make for the Cross Y Ranch where Alice works.
Before they leave , a number of them see a figure in the mist that looks humanid but seems to be made entirely out of writhing snakes. In their delirium after being bitten, Billy and Alice both have visions of this figure as well.
So this was the first actual battle that the party encountered. Last session we tested the archetype mechanic and the "Hero Dice" but this was the first time using the old Boot Hill mechanics and the result was...mixed. Prospector Billy is played by a teen who became bored with the amount of rolls necessary. I mentioned in an earlier post but there are three rolls; one to hit, one for damage location, and one for damage. All of these use percentile dice (2d10 with one representing the "10's" place to generate a range of 1-100). The game these days move faster but that may improve with some practice. However, the location roll really helped with the storytelling. I liked that there was an actual location for me to work with that the other players could also recognize as having a generally agreed upon in-game effect.
Otherwise everything move right along. Our sessions, however are much shorter than what is considered conventional for most people...about 75 minutes. The reasons are solid. We play on Wednesday night. We have school and work the next day. Also, attention spans are short at times. I have seen one livestream that is about this length--Oblivion Oath on Paizo--I have been impressed by how much they get done in a short amount of time. would it be fun to play longer? I am sure I would like it, but I know to stop when I see the players fading a bit.
Anyway, that is all. Next week we should have two more players. That should be fun...
Perhaps not surprisingly, I am very interested in clerics. I am a clergyperson in real life, serving a small congregation affiliated with two progressive denominations. In some sense, then, I, too, am a cleric! However, my interest in the character class goes all the way back to the B/X (Basic/Expert) Dungeons and Dragons that I played in the '80's. That was WAY before I did anything churchy. If you wanted your PC to live, a cleric was a nice choice. Playing a cleric I had solid armor and weapons, reasonable hit points and (at second level) spells to get those hit points back. I was attracted to the class because of the mechanics. The whole religion thing came later.
In a sense that "original" cleric stayed with us. It is a martial archetype, a sort of pre-paladin off to the crusades. However, as the game developed I--and a ton of other people--found that archetype limiting. After all, when we look at today's religious landscape there are all kinds of religious leaders. There are sequestered monks, scholarly rabbis, and dynamic, entertaining pulpiteers just to name a few. Then, when one adds in the fact that many--probably most--traditional fantasy settings are polytheistic, the range of clerics increases. When we look at the vast array of religious experience--both real and imagined--that strangely medieval "high church' knight of the early years knocking out heathens starts to make the least sense of all.
Now, I have played a variety of clerics of the years. Also, for our church youth group game (no "Satanic Panic" here) I tried to develop an order of clergy loosely based on my own tradition (Congregationalism). What I ended up with was an order of druids and bards who all run taverns and debate the existence of their deity who--strangely enough--occasionally drops in for drinks in the guise of an anthropomorphic lizard.--Sometimes the ministry feels like that.
Thanks to these experiences, I have decided to focus on two big challenges when roleplaying a religious leader. However, before we get to these challenges it is worth mentioning an overarching dynamic. Certain character classes in games like D&D or Pathfinder, for example, have clear real-world analogies. For RP purposes you can be (or know) a cleric, a bard, or any number of rogues. One could make a real-world argument for fighters and rangers as well. However, none of us actually knows a wizard or warlock or monk. They have fantasy hard-wired in. That said, I do believe that RP'ing clerics presents another special hurdle or asset, depending on how one looks at it. So on to the challenges...
The first of these problems comes from our own relationship with religion and our general lack of understanding about how it works. Because we don't know that much we bring our own biases into the game. This is not a shocker. Of course we do. However, it is limiting. If we do not know a fair sample of religious professionals (regardless of their religion) how can we make a fair assessment of our options? Certainly not by watching movies. More often than not--if there is a religious figure in a film at all--that person is a shorthand stand-in for the judgmental establishment. So many of the clerics I know in real life are non-judgmental and decidedly counter-cultural. I am not saying that hideous clergy don't exist--I know a lot of those folks too! However, It is worth remembering that Fred Rogers was also a minister..
Also, when we think of religion we often exclude the internal experience of our own naturally agnostic selves. This is too bad. After all what we see imperfectly outside ourselves should not be prioritized over our own thoughts and reflections. From a psychological or sociological perspective, we all have religious tendencies because we all want to make sense of the world we live in. This fact includes atheists. I actually know a large number of atheist clergy and they are some of the most religious people I have encountered. They are faithful to their world view and their beliefs.
Religions can be very toxic or they can be a blessing. Often one tradition can be both. Also, they can be organized or disorganized. Life is messy, after all. In its "purest" sense, though, faith isn't something you have permanently and all the time. It is an ideal that can be "lived into" even as we fall short. It is a path leading to a dimly conceived goal. It is an adventure of the mid and heart, which makes real-world--or RPG world-- adventures possible.
When we think of RP'ing a cleric, though, we often narrow our scope. even though that crusader image is increasingly a thing of the past, we often start with the idea that our character possesses theological certainty. Paladins have this problem as well. We think that they never have doubts or that they will want to "convert" everyone to their way of thinking (more about that in a minute). I have been a minister for 20 years and I have to tell you that I have doubts every single day. I also have never tried to "convert" anyone. Your clerics (and paladins) can be a hot spiritual mess sometimes while still being good people and being faithful to whatever divine entity they serve.
This brings us to the second problem. We bring our understanding of clerics into a world that is fundamentally different from that of our own. There is a wide variety of worlds that we game in. However, the default--certainly in the popular worlds put out by popular companies--is to take a polytheistic system of faith and put it into a Western European setting without making making all that many adjustments. In a lot of settings (like the one for my youth group that I mentioned earlier). The gods just wander around, dropping in on their followers. In others there is no clear religious system and instead a smattering of cults. The challenge for our brains is to separate these different systems from the one we are familiar with. It is a hard thing to do.
Naturally we look at these worlds through our own lens and can forget to make adjustments. In a world with tiny cults, for example, conversion makes total sense. In a world like ours--with a few large "world religions"--it makes less sense. In both of those cases what religion you identify as frequently has massive cultural implications. Think of all the people who don't go to church but do celebrate Christmas and Easter! A smaller cult would probably have even more intense cultural markers to separate themselves from others.
In a polytheistic world with "teams" of gods, conversion doesn't make much sense at all because someone else's deity might be besties with yours! Also, the existence of gods is not really questioned. They are right there...at the other end of the bar. Cultural markers will be different too and while it may not take a lot of thought it does take some. There might be some clues in Hindu practices if your world is one of these.
OK, I am running out of steam but there is so much more to say! Every once in a while I will come back to the topic of religion in world-building and roleplaying. I would like to talk about building realistic church or temple governance structures for fantasy worlds, for example. One can have a completely fantastic game without thinking about these things but if you want to think about them, they will enrich your world.
Bonus link of the Week:
Here is a sermon I gave a couple weeks ago about the deep welcome I have found in nerd culture over the years: NERDS!
OK so...let's talk about character generation. the first thing we did was make a Boot Hill character according to the second edition rulebook. We rolled percentile dice, which gave us bonuses or penalties in a variety of areas. These were later added to the weapon stats to establish both the order in which people act and the odds of success at gunfighting. I really don't want to get bogged down in this. You can buy the PDF of the old Boot Hill games on DrivethruRPG and the link is at the end of the previous post.
What I do want to talk about is what we did for actual roleplaying (RP). After we were done establishing what sort of shootists we were, I asked my wife and son to describe their characters, giving them evocative names and a sense of who they are. For the sake of simplicity we are calling this their "archetype". I stole this name from a game system called RISUS, which is the system we use in the aforementioned semi-moribund clergy game. Another term (popular in more conventional games) is "background". Here, however, it has a specific mechanical function.
Simply put, the archetype that the players choose makes them good at some things and less good at other things based on what that sort of character would be like. Archetypes can--quite literally--be anything the group can agree on. You can be "the Man With No Name" or "Little Jimmy's Mechanical Dog". It is totally up to the group to establish how serious or how gonzo the operation will be.
For example, for this game I told them to pick a character archetype based on the theme of "paranormal cowboy (or cowperson or cowpoke or...cowpuncher)". My wife chose "Ripley" and gave that name to her character. Ripley needs no introduction to those familiar with the Alien franchise. If you are not familiar, they are movies you can watch.
Ripley (played by Sigourney Weaver) has a fairly strong archetype with particular strengths and weaknesses that a player can lean into while improvising. My son chose "Prospector (Wild) Billy". You can see a drawing of Billy on the sheet in the photograph. Again, we know what Billy is about. He probably talks to himself, makes a mean chili, owns a pick, and rides a mule, among other things.
Each of them was given a pool of 3 six-sided dice (3d6) to roll when they are in a non-combat situation and want to do something that would fit into their archetype. Does Ripley need to resist her revulsion generated by the tentacle monster rising out of the rotting corpse of the sheriff's horse? She can roll 3d6 to see how she does. I--as the GM--will determine the number she needs to get over for a success. I will either set a number in my head that she has to beat or for more exciting randomness, roll a 20-sided die (d20) to see how it compares to the 3d6 roll. Yes, a d20 has a range of 1-20 and 3d6 has a range of 3-18 but I might use modifiers...or not. We will see how it works out in game play. In any case there is no success or failure (sort of), merely plot points and bumps in the road.
As the characters advance, they will either get bonuses to their 3d6 rolls or another six-sided die to add to the pool. Again, it will depend on the direction of the story. In this game--unlike many other RPG's--there are no distinct "levels". There will, however, be various stat increases and other buffs as the story continues. they may even get a d6 in a new archetype if the situation allows...like "Bartending Warlock" or whatever...
But...what if your archetype doesn't cover an action and you still want to do it? This is where the story gets interesting, right? For this purpose (for now) we are going to make use of "Hero Dice". If Ripley and Billy need to infiltrate that fancy-dress party being thrown by "Doc Vlad" the undead pharmacist, they have a problem. Neither of their archetypes, after all, are given to social niceties. They are out of their comfort zone and working against type. After some entertaining improve, I will roll a d20 while adding and subtracting modifiers in order to come up with the difficulty of the task at hand. Then they will roll a number of dice.
At the beginning their dice will be an 8-sided die (d8) added to a 4-sided die (d4). Why? For starters, there are lots of cool dice in the world and we should use them all! Also, it means that as they progress in experience the size of those dice can increase.
A Note on Mechanics:
First of all "Mechanic" in this sense is just a fancy way of saying dice rules...
With that out of the way, you may have noticed that the adventure we are playing at my house is one with a few different mechanics. Many newer games have one kind of mechanic, In the current versions of D&D and Pathfinder (two of the most popular games) all the various modifiers are added to or subtracted from a d20 roll. This is the same if you are hitting an orc with your mace or charming the Duke of Earl. There is strength in this system, actually. it is easy to learn and moves the story right along...most of the time. The moribund games I run are mostly in D&D 5e and I like it very much.
That said, there is something cool about the special secret randomness of having a diverse set of dice mechanics. I will make no arguments for better flow or historical veracity. "Flow" is a subjective concept in gaming and there is nothing historical about fighting the undead in a landscape inspired by Sergio Leone. What kids of dice to use is also subjective and at the family table--so far--this seems to be working.
So far (yes, so far) we are using three different kinds of dice rolls (Percentile dice, 3d6 v. 1d20, and 1d8+1d4 v. 1d20) rather than just one. Is the system we are using "fair"? Is it "balanced"? I don't know. It is very hard to tell what that even means in a "rules light" game. What I do know is that it sounds like fun.
So next time we will give this game a "go" and see how it works. In the brief test-game our two heroes went shopping for equipment. They are under the impression that they are the newest hires for the "Lazy J" ranch near the town of Gordon. But they aren't their yet. There is a days long stagecoach ride ahead of them.
That said, so far so good with the game. Both players made use of the Hero Dice and their archetypes. Sadly there were no gunfights so we don't know how that mechanic from my childhood has held up. I guess we shall see, won't we?
Link of the Week:
Check out the RISUSverse! It is ridiculous and uses dice pools of d6's exclusively (yes, a unified mechanic). The rules fit on four pages and the RP is very fun! ...oh...and it is free...
Over at Burbania Posts I mentioned that I have been super-busy and not quite getting things done here at the web page. I am trying to change that. Another place where I am not participating quite as fully these days is in my favorite pastime of tabletop (or "pen and paper") roleplaying games (RPG's). At church and in public I tend to refer to this hobby as "Dungeons and Dragons" but gamers know that is just the tip of the iceberg. Last year I had a number of games going. I had a clergy game, a game of former youth groupers (now in college) and one for my son and a friend of his who lives far away in Texas. For the last few months I have had none. I am the Game Master (GM) for all of them so prep time is essential. I hope to get back to them once I have the time. However, I still want to play.
This is the reason for yet another heading on this web page. I am working back in by turning to my family. Over the summer my middle son ran a game for us based on the old-school "B/X" D&D rules. If you don't know what that means don't worry about it. It was the kind of D&D I played when I was a child in the '80's. Now I am working on a game to run for me, my wife, our at-home son, and the other boys when they are back for Thanksgiving and Christmas. I am calling it "Paranormal Cowboy" and stealing rules from a variety of locations to make it work.
What follows (in this post and in future posts) are thoughts, rules tweaks, and other things that someone other than me might find interesting...
THE BASE GAME:
So my first challenge in this exercise was to find a base system to use as a foundation for the various other rules that will flesh out the experience. For this I turned to the second RPG I ever played. Boot Hill (second edition) was an early attempt to expand the hobby out from sword and sorcery motifs and into other areas of potential interest. Perhaps obviously it is a cowboy game. Gunfighters square off on the main streets and back alleys of movie-styled western towns. When I was a kid I loved it. It was perfect for single-session (one-shot) adventures where one can skip straight to the climactic moment in the second reel when everything comes to a head and somebody fails to leave town alive. My friends and I could roll up ridiculously powerful gunslingers in moments and then just as quickly get shot down in the proverbial blaze of glory. So when I was considering what kind of game I wanted to play on game night at the house, I naturally thought of this one.
What I am taking from this game are the basic character generation and combat systems. Both use percentile dice--two 10-sided dice (d10's), one representing the "10's place" and one the "1's place"--that give us numbers from 1-100. those dice are then compared to a chart that will help determine bonuses for gunfighting. Speed, Accuracy (shoot and throw), Bravery, Strength, and starting Experience are all determined with this role. Bonuses and penalties are then applied to determine chances to hit, etc.
The attacks are also made with percentile dice and there are all kinds of modifiers to them. Is the target running or standing? Are they behind some sport of barrier or are they standing in the middle of the street like Gary Cooper in that movie? After the initial roll to see if the attack succeeds, there is another percentile roll to see where a successful hit lands. Body parts are designated and then a third roll tells us whether it was just a flesh wound or...terminal. That part was always a bit sobering. In old school games--unlike today--your character could die fairly quickly. Literally a single shot could have them measured for a coffin.
This is important, actually. In real life, I am not a big fan of guns. the potential for instant death adds a little "reality" in the game. No matter how heroic or strong you are, a bullet can kill you. It also encourages the players to think of fighting as their second or third means of solving many problems. They put time into their characters, after all, and they would like to keep them.
Finally, in another nice twist, it might look like you were hit (a successful attack roll) but if the determined location is covered--say you were shot in the leg but you are standing behind a feed trough--then you weren't shot at all. This means lots of ducking and dodging, using the landscape to the player's advantage. Players have to think a bit before acting. Of course they are probably fighting zombies and zombies don't care...
Sure, it is number-crunchy, but that is part of what makes it fun! Also fun are the very high risks your character can take. I will not provide details about the mechanics. I do provide a link below to a place where you can buy a very reasonable PDF.
OK, there are many weaknesses. It requires math. The grappling rules could be better. hand-to-hand combat rules are non-existent. There are no magic rules and no cthulian creatures (I said this was paranormal, right?) but the largest system problem is...well...
There is no way to sugarcoat this...There are actually no rules for roleplaying (RP) or exploration in this RPG...other than gambling...I guess...
One of the best parts of this kind of game is that we all get the chance to play (as in acting out) a character. This character needs to be in a convincing world. When I was playing Boot Hill in middle school I really looked forward to the chance to be someone other than myself. It s a big appeal to the game to this day. Back then, though, we were dependent on our fellow players to be good improvisers and on the game master to be comfortable keeping the story rolling by arbitrating disputes between players and giving them all the chance to influence the world and the many non-player characters (NPC's) that lived in it. That is a tall order for a bunch of twelve year-olds! So many games ended in so many tears...
Even at my advanced age I feel like a little dice rolling for exploration and social interactions helps to distinguish the characters from each other and to ease roleplaying. For this I used a different system that I will talk about in the next installment. I will also start to talk a bit about the world we are building and how our first session went. First, though, I need to show you how to get a copy of Boot Hill, right? I mean...y'all want to play it now...
The Link of the Week:
So the link of the week this week is perhaps the link of forever, namely drivethruRPG. Hunt around in there and you will find 2nd edition Boot Hill. You will also find 1st and 3rd edition. 3rd edition reputedly has RP and exploration rules. Maybe you want to do that. I will not. I am sure it is a great game, but I didn't GM it when I was 12...