Monday, August 31, 2009

Bronze Working

This is a fairly straight-forward subject, discovered probably by accident by a potter who noted that certain rocks melted when placed in the airless ovens which were in use around 6000 to 4500 BCE. Still, it was another thousand years before certain localized areas had learned how to forge bronze into hard materials, through introducing an impurity into the metal (arsenic was used long before tin).

Certainly localized cultures with copper and arsenic available, and later tin, benefited from the slightly lower melting point for metals forged at or near sea level: the Indus, Nile, Tigris-Euphrates and Yellow river valleys. Bronze was considerably stronger than copper, and once the process of forging was discovered, an item could be hammered until it was up to four times as strong as the metal when cast.

This led to bronze weapons and armor, which were the power weapons of their day ... enabling those river valley civilizations with the process to war successfully against their neighbours, thus unifying each culture for long periods. Although all were subject to infighting, the cultures became homogeneous in language, religion, political structure and social custom.

Thus, individual cultures were melded into Egyptians, Mesopotamians, Aryans and Chinese. As metalsmithing spread out into the hills, those tribes too unified – as the strongest dominated the weakest through the use of metal weapons.

It is a point that very few cultures have been successful at all without the discovery of metal, and none at all who were at some point in their history exposed to metal-wielders. Wood does not stand up well to metal – not even when the wood includes the bow and arrow, as most cultures did long prior to the discovery of metal weapons.

That is because early bows and strings are notoriously unreliable, and lack the power of the later longbow for overcoming heavy armor. Early bronze armor, incidentally, was little more than a large plate which hung on a strap around one’s neck, covering the front of the body – often of burdensome weight. But it was tremendously effective in battle, compared to those relying on non-metal armours. Thatch and leather had been effective against wooden weapons – but were not so much against a hard bronze sword with the benefit of an edge.

It is often thought that bronze is inferior to iron where it comes to weapons. I haven’t been able to find any data to support that conclusion. Copper was more easily identified than iron by the neoliths, and occurs more often in placer deposits (pure metal nuggets). Copper melts at 1,083 degrees Celsius, while iron melts at 1,535 degrees C. Thus it is easier to manufacture. When beaten and annealed, bronze is as hard and as dense as wrought iron – meaning that for two dark age knights hacking at each other with swords, a bronze sword is just as effective (and no more likely to dent or bend) than an iron sword.

However, it was discovered that iron – once identified and once means to found it was managed (quite early on, not long after the discovery of smelted copper) – is vastly more plentiful. Its appeal rose because it was as good as bronze and much cheaper. It was also available in a greater number of places.

By the time of the Middle Ages, copper in many ancient mines had played out, not to be found in many new places – and tin, the best addition to copper, was much rarer. Bronze fell out of favour.

From a D&D perspective, any truly ancient weapon ought to be constructed from bronze ... at least it would be a good indication that the weapon came from another age, and was made according to principles that were lost. That is the usual program, is it not? Was Excalibur necessarily made of iron?

But then we see weapons presented in movies as shiny, lightweight artifacts – not as metal clubs with points and edges. Without question that is how early weapons were used. Daggers and swords were heavy, the heavier the better, since that helped hold the edge and produced the best hit possible.

I feel both mirth and disgust at watching the fight scenes from the movie 300, which features weapons of iron with remarkable sharpness, slicing bodies apart as though they were not made of hard bone. Mystically, we are taught by the movies that weapons don’t dull and that if you swing hard enough, the human body offers no greater resistance than warm jello.

Granted, those scenes are for iron weapons and not bronze, but the principal is the same. As I say, a bronze weapon will match the power of an iron weapon, weight for weight. It was not until the 17th century that harder iron metals were managed.

This is not very helpful for your campaign, I know. You may consider that for the time period, the power of the priests, the development of cultures, food production and so on were brought together by the creation of bronze weapons to form what we think of as the Bronze Age. I will write more on this tomorrow, as I hope to introduce a unifying principle into these technologies.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Timely Thoughts

I want to write just to thank those who have commented the last couple months, both those who have enjoyed the civilization posts and those who have disagreed with me. I'm really only at the doorstep of the total number of posts left to write in the series, and I'm happy that it has turned out to be a good idea after all.

Tomorrow will be the 30th anniversary of my first participating in a game of D&D. The story of that night was the subject of the first post on this blog. It was the friday night three days before I began high school ... so I was truly a kid, 14 years old.

Over the years I've been in many worlds, some good, some bad ... but I admit I haven't been a player in a regular campaign since 1991. And it was bad, the bad rejoiner to a string of bad campaigns, enough to stop me from looking. That means that for half the time I have been playing D&D, I haven't had another DM to keep me honest.

This probably has something to do with my inflexibility when it comes to the game. My players, god love 'em, don't seem to mind, but at times I feel drained and apathetic. It has been three months since I've run my campaign, having taken a sabbatical for the summer, and my players are getting anxious to get things kicked back into gear. I wish I felt like them.

For while I've worked on my world and I've written fairly continuously on the subject, I'm not looking to getting back into weekly and bi-weekly harness again. As years past, the game process begins to aggravate. It has something to do with the post I wrote lately about DMing like an asshole, but mostly it is that I'm growing old and an evening spent with people shouting and talking over one another has begun to aggravate me. I have been casting around for some means to fix this, but short of implementing the above mentioned rules (which, incidentally, if you missed it I don't play by), I'm at a loss.

In some ways I liked the online campaign I started this spring. It was problematic to write descriptions for, and problematic as far as people being able to interact, but it was quiet. And as I move further into middle age, I am beginning to appreciate that.

I know I will begin to play. I know I will like it. But I also know I'm on borrowed time, that eventually as I move into my fifties I'm just not going to be able to take it. If I played with people my own age ... perhaps that might be different. But frankly, there are no people my own age. Not even those born in the same year as me, apparently.

Yes, I'm a bit down. Wouldn't expect that would you? But if I could ask for something after all this time, it would be that this game could be, somehow, as civilized as bridge, or chess, or anything else where patience and thought took precedence over the raw release of animal spirits.

I don't know. Am I alone?

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Scale

These past few weeks, in those times when I should have been working on my novel (when should I not be working on my novel? Not now), I have been working on the map you see below. This is actually grouped together from four files, in order to give a sense of dimension - which explains some of the roughness of its edges and the repeat in labelling. I don't label my maps that extensively, since real maps serve to tell me what the places are ... so I ask your forgiveness. Go ahead and compare the map with one from the real world if you like.

This is a section of the Arctic coastline, from the White Sea on the west to nearly the Yenisey River delta on the east. The narrow island in the middle is Novaya Zemlya, dividing the Barents Sea on the west from the Kara Sea on the east. The Barents is ice free for much of the year, affected by the northern extension of the Gulf current; though much of what's shown on this map does freeze over, particularly as one moves towards the eastern shores. The Kara Sea has traditionally been frozen over from mid-October to the following early July (lately, it has been open four months of the year, given as one of the signs of global warming). The Kara is highly populated by whales during those short summers, as there is an explosion of krill that follows the opening of the cold waters. Whalers must get to the inlet between the land and Novaya Zemlya by the beginning of July and plunder the waters before they're frozen over.

A few notes: grey hexes are uninhabitable tundra, mostly freestone and summer lichens. Sea-green hexes are bog and muskeg. Purple hexes are undifferentiated highlands, equally uninhabitable due to severe cold. Forest green hexes indicate habitable lands, mostly supported by fishing. Hexes have a 20 mile diameter.



This is a part of the world for which it is difficult to get good maps. They are available on line, but not in the scale of this map, which like all my maps was plotted by latitude and longitude ... letting me get an excellent view of the map as it develops beneath my fingers.

For me, this is the real fascination in making these maps: the opportunity to go somewhere I've never been, in high detail. After a few weeks of roaming over the mountains, up and down the river valleys and over the vast wildernesses, I feel on some level as though I had taken a vacation.

It wouldn't be a very comfortable place. My world's inhabitants of this area don't amount to more than about 20,000 humanoids, most of them gnolls (Yak'Margug) and goblins (Biyetia). I call the island in the middle 'Jotunheim' in reference to the land of the frost giants - I felt this was a perfect land for them. I estimate their population at over 500 ... scattered into the eight settlements shown. My players at present have no idea this place even exists - but then, how many are remotely aware this part of the world exists?

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Monotheism

I would like to say, for the record, that I am not a religious person. I do not believe in ‘God’. When I am asked if I respect the beliefs of others, I am unable to discern any difference between those who might believe in a divine being and those who might believe they should wait 30 minutes after eating before entering the pool. I don’t respect beliefs based on stupidity. So if you read this, and wish to interject with an argument based upon any existing monotheistic religion, expect a nasty answer from me.

That said, I was raised Lutheran, and given a considerable religious education as a young man, which I followed up through university by a minor in religious studies. While I don’t respect belief systems, I have in the past enjoyed tearing people’s arguments apart from inside their belief structure – particularly in terms of Christian religion, with which I have the most experience. I have a Bible on my shelf. That is because it is a necessary source document to understanding this culture’s history and perception.

Why is that? Upon what is the success of Christianity based? Why did it, among all the pagan religions that infused Rome during the first four centuries AD, successfully superimpose itself upon the Roman and Greek mind? Was it chance, or luck, or the action of particularly brilliant thinkers? And why did it, along with Judaism and eventually Islam, inculcate itself so prominently into the world at large? More than two thirds of the world operates according to a monotheistic religious principal. Even Hinduism, which is extensively polytheistic, has had its greatest unifying success through the incorporation of a single principal entity, Krishna, introduced in the Upanishads at the time of the European Dark Ages (when monotheism in Europe was fully establishing itself). And Buddhism, which has no deity per se, speaks of a ‘oneness’. What is the appeal?

There are of course a great many reasons, and you are welcome to pursue a degree in the subject if you are so inclined. It would be ridiculous for me to attempt a complete account of the rise of the Christian Church here, and thoroughly useless if you were not prepared to take up a reading list beginning with Augustine’s City of God, along with works from Origen, Tertullian and a whole whack of contemporary writers from Plutarch through Suetonius to Tacitus describing the development of Roman life and its eventual collapse. Let us assume, therefore, that anything I say is going to be seriously ‘dumbed down’, simply because I’m not interested in writing a 90,000 word thesis on just this one topic. Besides, I only wish to address one particular angle on the subject, and that is the treatment of monotheism as a technology, which is after all the focus of this series.

You can accept it from me or you can accept it from L. Sprague de Camp, who wrote extensively upon this subject (that source is for you, Jeff), that the ancient Greeks and Romans produced hundreds of intricate and sophisticated technological improvements ... the knowledge of which, for mysterious reasons, fell out of favour. We know that Archimedes produced various clever devices which enabled the defence of Syracuse. None of those devices were ever used again, to our knowledge. Greek Fire was a thoroughly useful and effective weapon, particularly at sea. We don’t know for sure what it was. Woad was used to produce a blue dyestuff which was popular among the Celts. We have no clear idea what woad was, nor can any natural British plant produce a blue dye. We have Roman devices which were run by steam and evidence of Byzantium robots. Why were these innovations lost?

Hero of Alexandria's Steam Engine


From our perspective, where every innovation is immediately seized upon and spread throughout the population, and ultimately improved upon, it is hard to believe that this was not done. Therefore, it has previously been supposed (up to the early 20th century) that such things were fabrications in the minds of historians, and that they never existed. But it is now believed that yes, they did exist, but for cultural reasons, there was no compelling need among the population to implement them. This is upheld by Chinese examples, such as iron founding in the 11th century which was put to an end by a disinterested bureaucracy, and vast shipbuilding skills from the 15th century that did not exist when the British occupied the country hundreds of years later.

Some people, it seems, just don’t care.

Allow me to suggest the workings of the pagan mind, for which there was no afterlife. You will find authors (none of them reputable, mind) today who will argue vigorously that there was an afterlife for the Romans, but I will point out that there are no sources for any supposition beyond vague suggestions of a ‘destination’ such as the Egyptian City of the Dead, or the Greek Hades. No philosophical treatment is given to these places ... they merely ARE. What one does there, or what purpose they serve, has no description which has survived to this era. This may be due to a successful Christian campaign to destroy such documents, but given what has survived (lengthy accounts of other pagan practices, sexual and otherwise), this seems unlikely. Consider also that we have little in the way of knowledge regarding actual Roman practices for burial. Beyond fragments and bits of law, we have nothing.

Consider the pagan’s mindset: when he is dead, he is truly dead. He is not a ghost, he does not haunt or drift around his family members, there is no heaven, there is no hell. At best, he might imagine a sort of eternal waiting room where he waits for nothing. In our culture, it is far easier to let go the concept of God than it is to let go the concept of an afterlife. The most sincere atheists I have known continue to concoct personal belief systems regarding what they might be privileged to do once they have died. They will catch themselves falling into ruts of afterlife assumptions, which they must habitually quash, reminding themselves that such things do not exist.

They don’t for our pagan. They haven’t been invented yet. For him, what good does it do to improve the world around him? What good does it do to amass knowledge? He is not part of a social heritage ... he is still fundamentally just another animal. There is no grand purpose in the universe for which he is a part. For him, it is eating and feeding his needs until the day he dies, and there is no reason to feel guilty about that. Excess is good, for no other reason than because it is excess, and there is only so long. Bereft of every guilt-concept that will be invented over the next five centuries – by Christianity – he is free to indulge to the best degree in which he is able. And the entire culture thinks that way. This helps explain the never-ending slaughter that is Greek and Roman history.

Meditation began to lift the pagan out of his hedonism by suggesting that there is a greater truth. Hinduism, the most successful polytheistic religion, instituted the concept of karma, which would compel believers to resist hedonism in the recognition that a well-lived life would begat a better life the next time around. Zoroastrianism and Judaism, the first early monotheistic religions, superimposed elaborate ritual and social order so as to create cultural stability.

Christianity bettered them all – by creating an afterlife, it allowed for the belief that once you passed on, you would join your ancestors, and continue to take part in the history of the world following your death. Suddenly there was a reason to see the world not in terms of what it offered you, but in terms of what services you could render as a devout believer. Yes, there exists the reward/punishment system ... but that is more an aspect of the evangelistic reform beginning in the early 19th century than it was a part of Christianity seventeen centuries ago. The principal philosophy, proposed by Augustine and others, was that the world mattered less as a trial than as a place where one worked and lived in order to make it as close to heavenly as possible. To begin to live in the now as one would expect to live in heaven afterwards. Contrition wasn’t enough. You had to prove that you had a mind CAPABLE of contrition, otherwise God would know at once that you were not truly repentant. This is a distinction our modern born-agains fail to consider.

My favorite joke by the comedian Emo Phillips: “When I was a little boy, I prayed and prayed for a bicycle. Then I realized that God didn’t work that way. So I stole a bicycle and prayed for forgiveness.”

Modern Theologian


It would not have amused Augustine.

It is a strange thing, but by creating a sensibility that the world existed as an ongoing process, by which things were improved and on which a soul could look upon for eternity, Christianity invented a social climate which would allow for the rise of Science. Through teaching that the world existed by virtue of the purpose of God, the investigation of God developed the investigation of the world. Christianity may be bunk, but without it we could not now exist in a culture that bridges the generations between the venerable Bede and myself, the stones laid carefully by every thinking human who has lived during the interim.

And so, D&D. Where monotheism is a hated conception, presumably because it is so rife with moralisms that were clearly anathema to the Gygaxian ideal. It is the nature of little children to hate with considerable passion that which they do not understand, and to suppose that because they do not understand it can therefore have nothing of value. But clearly D&D is absolutely a monotheistic society, made more so when pagan deities are reduced to the status of monstrous additions to the bestiary compendia. For what else is the DM but a singular, unparalleled supreme being, who can bring forth any number of creatures he fancies, who can rule upon the roll of dice, who can zot every living thing with lightning by merely speaking the words, who can redirect the courses of rivers with an eraser and pen, who divines the very laws of physics by gauging how far and how fast a crossbow may fire, without need to appeal to any power save that of the DM’s own peculiar predilections. Whatever your DM may say, whatever I as DM may say, we are forced in the creation of the game to make ad hoc decisions continuously, whether we choose to adhere to a ‘rule book’ or not ... since obviously the rule book’s justice demands our approval. A rules lawyer may prate and scream precedents (and obscenities), but he or she is still subject to the final dictate of the judge, in whose court they argue.

You are God. And being God, it behooves you to retain as much an aspect of every religion’s god that has so far come down the pike ... that is, blessed disinterest. No god should be too heavy handed in their involvement, lest they should stab too hard with a finger and eradicate ten thousand useful cannon fodder for the player’s next venture forth. You may take glee in bringing down towns with earthquakes or washing away islands with tropical storms, but too much of this sort of blasting nonsense and you will find yourself a God over a world with few intelligible inhabitants. God you may be, but your players are your prophets and you need them. They need to feel a degree of security, a sense of greater purpose, else they will tire and take the unholy option – call it suicide, because their characters will be dead to you.

I cannot conjecture the presence of a God over this world, but if there is one, he does very little to disrupt the interests of the greater number of his menagerie. We may slaughter one another, or create institutions to torture one another, but God is well out of most everything. You as DM should take note. Set the stage, bring forth the extras, herd in the set designers and sell tickets if you’re able – but let the actors alone. Left that way, they will bring your heavenly concept to fruition, they will create your campaign for you and you will need do very little beyond providing a few obstacles and a few conditions on their behavior.

Poetic? Perhaps. Sometimes philosophy needs a little poetry.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Priesthood

Having written extensively on the cleric, I’m not sure what more I can add to the discussion of priests. In trying, let me begin with the first holy practitioners.

In primitive cultures, priests were not ‘trained’ as in D&D, but were merely those members of the society who were thought to have some special talent for communicating with divine spirits, or who had natural abilities to perform magic. In D&D, of course, this would be actual magic.

As an aside, it is reasonable that given a considerable number of humanoid births, a certain portion of these would spontaneously be capable of producing magic at will – thus the existence of psionics. I, however, do not use psionics, primarily because they defeat the baseline for conquering the game. It is as though you were to give one of the players in monopoly the opportunity to roll twice each turn. While this would result in more payouts, it would also enable them to quickly buy up property early in the game. In spite of the balances that have been attempted to limit psionics, I don’t find that the non-psionically endowed players feel particularly appeased. I’ve never encountered a long time player who wasn’t perfectly happy to play without them.

Very well – let’s dispense with the argument of priests having natural powers, and continue with the matter of their selection. And in doing so, let us consider the shaman, a holy person who was believed to acquire power by direct intercourse with spirits during a vision or dream. Unlike the cleric, who is seen as an intermediary, the shaman actually possessed power within himself. This is in keeping with the principals of animism, which I haven’t discussed previously. Animism describes spirits as agencies of the supernatural, rather than as gods. Usually such spirits are deceased ancestors, or heroes – and therefore are no different than living humanoids, except that they are now dead. It is not so much that they are deified – only that being dead, they are less restricted to the laws and rules that govern living men.

The shaman would become such a spirit upon death – in life, however, he is the focal point, ‘helped’ by the spirits to perform rituals. This to me is a stronger template for the nature of druids than the clerical one – it suggests that druids are less dependent on ‘gods’, and thus take their power directly from themselves and from the definite, localized spirits in any particular area. If we widen the shamanistic format to include the various little geniuses (so called by the Romans) which inhabited every rock, tree, river, doorway, plant, creature and so on, we can perceive that spells such as call lightning or stone shape are not obtained from the god, but directly from the cloud or the stone itself. As long as the various elements of nature are at peace with the druid, there is no trouble in casting. But should the druid through action or inaction alienate any particular aspect of nature, he would not be able to draw again upon that power until the matter was again made right.

Thus, if a druid were to inexplicably destroy a young tree, wood spells would cease in availability. However, since snow and ice, which happily rips trees down as it falls from the mountainside, could not care, spells based on cold would function as normal. This seems right and proper.

It may not seem so, but I have just come up with that in writing it down.

Moving further forward in technological development, we know that virtually every form of religion has possessed priests in some form or another. The reason that this is so is quite plain – the development of the priestly cast came about through knowledge which was not generally known. Priests were those who developed the ability to write, who kept records on when to plant and on who had paid taxes and who had not. Priests conjured methods by which the dead should be buried, and incorporated rituals which made themselves indispensible in the driving off of evil spirits and demons. Priests knew what was needed in identifying a promising chief, and later became the principal advisors for kings. It was a soft life for a priest, provided the advice given was good advice and that the signs were read correctly. But priests learned, as society developed, methods for how to lay the blame off on other things – rituals performed incorrectly, or a weakness in tolerating certain members of society that should not have been tolerated: “O King, it would have worked, but that you have continued to sleep with that harlot, whom I warned you against these three years ago.” Yes, that sort of thing.

Through sacrifice, priests could further establish their position of authority – what better way of getting rid of one’s enemies? Rarely will a D&D cleric realize that the best way to dispense the party of a certain thief is to suddenly recognize that the thief has green eyes, and that some written tract somewhere once warned that “green as the sea, a villain is he.” Whereupon, pointing at the thief and uttering the words, the party should at once seek to rid themselves of these angry spirits, build a pyre and roast the thief upon it.

Alas, clerics are not given the sort of credence in D&D as they are in life. But once they were ... and it was a power to be used sparingly, but practically. When the cleric announces that the castle must be taken, there is reason to follow the cleric’s word. If it should ever be discovered, however, that the cleric has misinterpreted scripture, ah, there’s the rub.

But we don’t have the sort of writings in D&D for a cleric to choose from, do we? What DM is likely to produce hundreds of pages of religious text to support the actions or inactions of a cleric who comes to play only on weekends, and sporadically at that? Is not the weakness in the class partly due to the weakness of the form? What priest would be without their Bible, perfectly memorized so as to produce a justification for every circumstance? Surely, no cleric can be as well prepared.

I tell you honestly, I don’t intend to write out a list of do’s and don’ts for the clerics in my parties. But it does occur to me, writing this, that it wouldn’t hurt to provide a bit more background, a bit more of what is expected, and a stronger notion of how the cleric’s day begins and how the cleric chooses his or her actions. All worked out with the cleric, of course ... provided the cleric is interested in that sort of thing. I haven’t met many players who were.

I might, though. If I were playing a cleric, I might take some time to write out a few psalms, hack out a few practicable myths and morality plays (outlines, at least), just to draw on them at the right time. It couldn’t hurt.

Well, this has been a bit of a hodgepodge, and I admit I’ve pulled some of this post out of my ass. But we have to have fun once in awhile.

Monday, August 24, 2009

The Sentry Box

Recently I dropped in at the local gaming store, The Sentry Box, which has been around for as long as I have been playing D&D ... and believe me, that has been a considerable time (exactly one week shy of 30 years). I suggested that if they didn't mind, I'd give them a little free advertising, no strings attached. I admit I don't shop there as much as I did once, but I feel fairly nostalgic about the place, and I'd like to do all I can for them.

They have a vast stock, including an extensive collection of traditional and vintage wargaming materials, so if you're looking for a game you haven't seen since 1983, I suggest you get into contact with them. You can find them here at Board Game Geek and on Facebook. On the record, I hate Facebook, with the sort of passion that one kills giant rats who have lucked out and rolled a double natural 20, but you're free to waste your time in the manner of your own choosing.

Not much else to say about it. I've done my bit of community service now, and so I trust the judge will look more favorably upon me.

Oh, and as I think of it, if you do contact them, it wouldn't hurt my future store credit to mention that you heard of them from me first.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Horseback Riding

“Tarns, who are vicious things, are seldom more than half tamed and, like their diminutive earthly counterparts, the hawks, are carnivorous. It is not unknown for a tarn to attack and devour his own rider. They are trained while still young, when they can be fastened by wires to the training perches. Whenever a young bird soars away or refuses obedience in some fashion, he is dragged back to the perch and beaten. Rings, comparable to those which are fastened on the legs of the young birds, are worn by the adult birds to reinforce the memory of the hobbling wire. Later, of course, the adult birds are not fastened, but the conditioning given them in their youth usually holds, except when they become abnormally disturbed or have not been able to obtain food.“

“The tarn is guided by virtue of a throat strap, to which are attached, normally, six leather streamers, or reins, which are fixed in a metal ring on the forward part of the saddle. The reins are of different colors, but one learns them by ring position and not color. Each of the reins attaches to a small ring on the throat strap, and the rings are spaced evenly. Accordingly, the mechanics are simple. One draws on the streamer, or rein, which is attached to the ring most nearly approximating the direction in which one wishes to go. For example, to land or lose altitude, one uses the four-strap which exerts pressure on the four-ring, which is located below the throat of the tarn. To rise into flight, or gain altitude on draws on the one-strap, which exerts pressure on the one-ring, which is located on the back of the tarn’s neck. The throat-strap rings, corresponding to the position of the reins on the main saddle ring, are numbered in a clockwise fashion.”

“You will come to know your tarn, and he will come to know you. You will be as one in the sky, the tarn the body, you the mind and will. You will live in an armed truce with the tarn. If you become weak or helpless, he will kill you. As long as you remain strong, his master, he will serve you, respect you, obey you.”


The above three passages are taken from the much maligned and heartily misunderstood novel, Tarnsman of Gor, published by John Norman in 1966. They are a detailed account of how an animal, vaguely corresponding to a large, mounted hawk or eagle, might be domesticated in order to be used for war and for travel. The conceptualization is thorough, detailed and quite practical, assuming such beasts might actually exist.

You will note that the animal cannot be controlled without the use of tack. Without the harness (and many other pieces of equipment that are described in the book but not included above), the tarn could not be controlled and would as described kill the rider. This is in keeping with the technology of horseback riding, which exists far less from a skill in managing the horse as it is a technology, the creation of the tack by which a horse may be managed. It is also technology in the genetic development of horses, as for thousands of years they have been bred to reduce their violent prehistoric dispositions.

An example you may have read about primitive control of horses is that American Natives would control a horse with a thong looped around the horse’s lower jaw. It helps to remember that horses were not native to the North American continent, but were left there by Spaniards in the 16th century – so that American Natives were in fact taming a horse from domesticated lines.

It is very different when one considers the wild animal that faced cultures ten thousand years ago. It would have taken much patience and effort to obtain first those comparatively gentler members of the species and domesticate them – followed by methods of weaving bits, bridles, harnesses and other means to protect the animal’s hooves and spine. Just as space travel created considerable technological leaps, horse travel must have compelled clever inventors to improve leathercraft, blanket weaving and animal husbandry (particularly in terms of hygiene and reproduction). In return, it may have been initially that for several thousand years the principal return for all this effort was merely a reliable source for dung, which serves as both fertilizer and fuel.*


High Tech


Early horseback riding, prior to the development of the stirrup, meant the horse in battle could be used only as a means of reaching the melee – although I’ve spoken earlier about the horses’ application to the chariot. Rather than covering old ground, in which I’ve talked about horse combat, I’d rather move off in a different direction in keeping with the manner in which I began this blog post: riding unusual animals.

The Civ IV technology obviously doesn’t refer to diverse mounts, but the technology’s application to D&D insists that the subject be considered. I am always being asked by players if they can ride bears, dragons, rhinoceroses, pegasi, sea lions or nightmares. My answer is usually no, mostly because such creatures are not often for sale at the local ostler’s. However, there is a greater consideration. Even given the reality that a black bear could support, physically, a character halfling, how would the halfling manage the beast? How would it compel the bear to pull left or right, or climb, or charge? It is usually thought by players that some method could be worked out by pulling the bear’s hair, in a Ratatouille-like fashion ... which I can accept from a cute film but which is patently ridiculous in terms of how I view my D&D world.

If we can consider the three quotes beginning this post, there are three problems which must be overcome with any creature. First, how is it trained? Second, how is it manipulated? And third, what is the relationship between the rider and its mount? These are all things which we understand intuitively regarding horses (and donkeys and mules, with similar characteristics), because they are familiar to us from our real-world observation or experience. But what are their counterparts where it comes to pegasi, perytons, giant eagles, hippogriffs, griffons, wyverns and dragons, just to name a few?

Naturally, there is the assumption that somehow these creatures will happily allow a character to jump on their back and go for a ride. That is how it is generally sold in fantasy fiction, for it is more convenient as a writer to have the dragon haul the protagonist’s carcass to the Tower On The World’s Rim than to walk there (Tolkien notwithstanding – he still didn’t make them walk back). Since a full chapter on dominating the mount would slow the story, we are blessed that mounts are terrifically cooperative and simply know exactly where the characters might want to go – Korgoth’s pigeons, for example.


However, I’m not quite so kind about giving players a convenient method to avoid the rancours of travel. I’m insistent that dragons have their own agendas, which do not include schlepping party members from place to place. I more or less subscribe to the principles established in the Greek and later myths: that pegasi and unicorns actively resist riders, that a manticore would rather tear your bones apart six ways from Sunday and that chimera are spectacularly difficult to harness.

Therefore, if you as a DM are prepared to invent cultural traditions for the catching and training of axe beaks, or complicated but feasible methods of harnessing six diminutive Cerberus-clones onto a dog sled, or psychological relationships between kobalds and whopping big mice, then I say go for it. If your party is clever enough to answer these principals, goddamn, tell them to lay down and get started.

But if what you’ve done up to now is to give them a free rein to ride around on any damn creature that takes their fancy, supposedly with a bit and bridal fashioned for horses, then slap yourself three times on the wrist and have that creature break free for the horizon. There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch, and you’re doing your campaign no good at all by giving them one. A practical farm designed by a player in order to raise a truly demented cavalry can be a worthy and rewarding campaign theme, but free rides to the dungeon are bollocks.

Now, how you might solve these problems is up to you. Magic, limited in supply but very effective in application, is a fair solution (though weak in terms of creativity) – after all, it was the one Belerophon used to tackle winged Pegasus. Institutional social custom is fair also. As Rohan was the land of the horse riders, so too can be your goblin race mounted on dire wolves, or xvarts mounted on war chickens.

It is up to you. But be thorough and have the rules and limitations ready.

And remember – anything smart enough to cooperate with the players probably won’t want to for long. Moreover, it may not quite be willing to drop down into the combat exactly to the place where the character specifies. After all, it has its own ideas how to fight a melee. Treat such cooperative associations with the recognition that no intelligent mount appreciates a back-seat driver ... and sometimes, the rubbernecker can just get the fuck off and walk.


* What manure might other animals produce, and what qualities might that manure produce regarding plant growth?

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Masonry


Stone is not an easy thing to shape. There were early cultures, notably the Incan, who were able to cut stone to fit like neat puzzle pieces in order to form structures, but by and large the process is slow and laborious. The pyramids, too, were fashioned largely of cut stone, the pieces shaped to be of similar size – but the pyramids are primarily piles of rock, with a clever use of keystones in order to create underground passages. They could not be called ‘fluid’ structures.

The true genius of early masonry was not, in fact, the stone – nor the use of brick, which came into use with the development of pottery and kilns. The genius is in the mortar. Mortar which is flexible, which allows fluid structures to be created from virtually any kind or shape of rock. Mortar enabled the great cities of the Mesopotamian delta to rise above the plain, as temples, as gardens and as fortifications.

Mortar is a mixture of water, sand and ‘quicklime,’ which when mixed together and allowed to dry hardens to the level of a fairly soft rock. However, where the lime combines with existing rock, the hardening of the mortar creates a single cohesive hardness to the entire structure.

Which is probably more than you needed to know.

Still, some cultures were blessed with large deposits of lime, while some were not. Lime is found worldwide, but much of it is of poor value and not suitable for the making of ‘cement’, the powder which is made from burning lime, and which is mixed with sand and water to make mortar.

I am simplifying to some degree, because I don’t want to get bogged down in a lengthy chemical discussion of the specific properties of lime, limestone, gypsum, calcium and fifty other materials used to make cement. Suffice to say, for our purposes, where lime is superior, massive building projects are practical. Where lime is inferior, alternative methods of construction are required. The Incas had no suitable lime deposits. The Egyptians, too, were limited in their supply. The Mesopotamians had lots and lots.

What the Mesopotamians did not have was stone. Mesopotamia, modern Iraq, is a large sandy bowl, which gets muddy where it is watered by the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. The combination of bricks made from this mud, plus mortar made from the copious supply of lime, allowed for massive ziggurats. There were many more such ziggurats built in Mesopotamia than pyramids built in Egypt.

In most D&D worlds, this sort of thing is never considered. Elves living in high mountains of course have massive, spired castles reaching hundreds of feet into the air. Dungeons never lack for as much marble as they need, nor for the mortar to fashion miles of hallways made of glittering granite paving stones, driven deep into the earth. Every ancient culture which is overturned by the party will feature sculptured building masses that would have needed whole armies of masons; every lost city is a near perfect mathematical rendition of flawless Gothic design. Heaps and piles of stones are not considered. Now and then a Mayan temple with neatly cut stairs may appear, or something similar to the jungle temple of Angkor Wat. That is because these places are complex, with many hallways and rooms. Whereas the tomb of Cyrus the Great (non-mortared) can be easily explored.

Unless you invent underground passages ... which must be mortared masterpieces in order to justify their withstanding 2500 years of history.

Sociologically, the massive building projects that began in the third millennium BCE were responsible for much of the civic society which we still experience today. Building projects required labour. Labour required overseers, who themselves required greater overseers, leading ultimately to a king. The projects required more than stone – they required food and materials for the workers, which brought about taxes. Since coin did not exist, ‘taxes’ were a portion of goods and foods produced, co-opted by the state as supplies.

Enforcement of labour required more than overseers, it required those who would punish recalcitrant workers and taxpayers – the enforcement of laws. Naturally, when the community was threatened, such law enforcement doubled as soldiers. Most of this is simple textbook reading.

But in places where no massive building structure was done, such social constructions were never devised. The Mongols did not pay taxes, for example, two millennia later – though they did make offerings and though they had a substantially developed and complex society.

What I’m saying is that your world’s cultures should be carefully considered – do these peoples truly need any large structures in order to maintain their local traditions? Yes, I’ve no doubt you’ve divided groups into ‘civilized’ and ‘nomadic’, but consider the hundreds of hybrid societies which fit between. Many northern societies who constructed buildings of wood did not need to thoroughly change all of their nomadic principles in order to live in ‘cities’. The same can be said for Polynesian societies. Whereas the Mesopotamians built cities, the Egyptians built tombs, the Hindus built temples and the Celts built monoliths whose purpose is still debated. The Easter Island inhabitants carved huge heads but left little evidence of their living arrangements. The ancient natives of Ohio built huge mounds of earth, but we know little about their culture.

Before defining the culture by its masonry, instead select masonry according to the culture you imagine. Do not assume that all highly civilized communities will automatically build complex, massive structures. Are the materials available? Would it serve any purpose for that culture if they were? And what purpose? If there were previous dwellers in this land, don’t assume that the ruins they left behind were the highest culture imaginable. They may have left nothing more special than tiny tombs scattered upon the landscape. Or stone posts representing phallic symbols, all of them four feet high and numbering in the thousands.

Be imaginative.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Roleplaying Time

I should like to try an experiment in role-playing.

Using any character of your own imagination, please write 50-100 words for each of the following situations given below. These should be the words which your character would say. The background is yours to invent. Please be sincere, serious and original:

1) Your character has entered a tavern. Instead of asking for information, tell the bartender your tale of woe, as though your character had something to get off his or her chest.

2) You are about to lead a group of NPC’s to attack a fortified tower. Inspire them.

3) Rancid the Thief, a member of your party, has just died. He has always been an enormous pain in the rear. Give his eulogy. (remember, be serious – imagine that NPC’s are listening).

Add your answers to the comments page. No answer will be critiqued. We may take a vote and figure out some kind of prize later. No idea what, but I'm open to suggestions.

UPDATE: There appears a strong urge to wax poetic, and while I understand that motivation (writing long posts myself), brevity my dear lads, brevity.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

DM As An Asshole (a how-to guide)

This post was inspired by comments made by my friend Carl on the post, “The Council of Passaic.”

I don’t know if most of you play chess. I learned to play fairly early, at seven years of age. I was taught by my father, who was not a good player – but he felt his sons would be interested in chess. Why he did not feel his daughter would be interested is another post altogether.

It did not take me long to beat my father – perhaps a year. After that I beat him regularly. I don’t remember playing a game with him after age 14. By then I was cleaning his clock.

My brother, five years older than me, was a much better player. It took me four years to win a game against him. Whereupon he threw a fit. I did not play against him for nine years (during which time, we did not speak a lot). He had not improved as a player in the intervening time.

I, on the other hand, played chess furiously through junior high school. I read books on the subject and I began to compete in tournaments. Around the 9th grade I was playing in and around the 1400 to 1500 level. Not spectacular, by most accounts, but I could have done fairly well had I continued to improve. I began to see, however, that if I was going to improve, I would have to dedicate my life to the game, my every waking hour. I wasn’t prepared to do that. I had decided to be a writer.

I didn’t play many tournaments after coming to that realization. Then I found D&D, which was much more diverting than chess. I continued to play, off and on, and occasionally found friends where we could play game after game all afternoon. It is off the point, but I don’t play at all now. I haven’t actually played the game in over two years. I don’t even play programs. I’m not going to get better. I would guess I would have trouble playing at the 700 level. Chess is observation, and observation is a skill learned with repetition.

There is a distinct difference between friend’s chess and tournament chess. With friends, I rarely played according to the protocols. I very rarely played with a clock, unless they were also tournament players. I didn’t play with the you-touch-it-you-play-it rule. I considered chatting a social condition of playing with friends. Stupid moves could be taken back – why not? We’re just friends.

Tournaments are hardcore protocol activities. You train yourself to stare at the board and think. You don’t talk, you don’t make any motions at all while the game is on – it is considered very poor sportsmanship to distract your opponent. If you are training for a tournament you play by these rules in order to adapt and train your mind to think without the need for physical movement. You learn to think without fondling the pieces before you move them. And you think quickly – the clock is ticking. I’ve known many players who always play this way, even in the park, even in local coffee shops. It’s the only way they play.

I would like to make equivalent proposals for the game of D&D. I have never played according to any of these. I have never considered implementing them – I’m not seriously considering doing so in the near future. I play D&D with friends. It is serious, but not that serious. I have some rules, such as dice count on the table only and no re-rolls, not even for the DM. But they are generally player friendly.

However, if you are having trouble controlling your game, and you’d like to try being a real bastard for the evening, I would suggest some of what follows. Keep in mind – these are equivalent to the sort of stern, anti-socializing rules which govern sincere chess players.

1. No touching of the dice except when required. It is an annoying habit of players to roll and roll their dice, trying to make a natural 20 occur. Or players who must roll the dice twice to ‘shake off the demons’ before rolling the one that counts. I suggest no rolling, none at all, unless the die counts. To police the rule, I suggest every random roll be treated as a saving throw versus trap or monster attack (thus conjuring a monster by rolling the die that has some attack which requires a saving throw; this need not be overt – a brown recluse spider nestled in the player’s belt pouch, for instance). Attempt to conceal the roll indicates automatic failure. Even if the player succeeds, the player will feel less urge to roll again.

This is equivalent to a chess player not touching the pieces. You’ll find similar rules in backgammon, and in many other ‘sophisticated games’ which do not tolerate such things as spitting tobacco in the bullpen or counting your money in Monopoly ... while waiting for them to take their turn.

2. No talking except to describe what their character is doing, or what their character is saying, or specific questions asked of the DM. Yes, I know this rule is out there. I have at key times required it of my players. I am asking a little more here, however, than most DMs would ask. I mean NO talking. No unnecessary questions, no irrational statements ‘made by their characters,’ no leading up comments prior to actually giving an answer to a question.

What do I mean exactly? I mean comments like, “let me think” (do it silently then); “I don’t know what to do” (try shutting up); “My character goes to the tavern ... no, I mean the inn – no, I think ... I think he’ll go to the market place, if I can put my horse in the stable first ...” (brain in gear, then talk); “I’m attacking the darkness” (Uh, no). Various verbal detritus like this needs to be banned. It will encourage thinking. Chess players do not mutter about possible moves before playing.

I mean intermittent character ‘dialogue’ like, “My character tells your character to get stuffed” (both of you stuff it); “You’re a pussy, pussy pussy pussy ... hey everyone, Ragnock is a pussy ...” (you know what? fuck right off); “Then how come you had to cast magic missile?” (sooooo funny).

And I mean questions like, “Which die do I use for a long sword?” (you know what? you get to attack when you fucking figure it out); and “I can cast any of these right? On the list?” (I told you once); “How can they surround us? I had Mordenkainen’s magical watchdog cast ...” (and you told me ... when?).

Yes, this is being an unbelievable prick. It also greatly reduces the second-grade babble that pervades all sessions, making it impossible for the DM to actually hear the players say they cast this spell or that spell. If you don’t let a player attack during a combat because they can’t remember what die they need to roll for a mace, you know what – they will remember next time. Pabulum feed them and they will suckle that tit for life.

Suggestions for other punishment? All unnecessary chatter in the wilderness to be punished with automatic party surprise + failure for initiative during the next combat. Unnecessary chatter in a public setting like a town guarantees one random item automatically stolen per six second period.

3. No out of milieu references. No references to movies, no references to modern equipment, no references to any anachronistic material, period. All such references to be considered immediate indications of character insanity, to be followed with an extensive spontaneous period of either manic behavior (DM runs character) or catatonia (indicating character is in another space). Either are certain to happen in the middle of combat.

This might, or might not include shouts of “BOOO-YAH!” upon killing enemies. DM’s discretion.

4. Time is an element. I suggest a chess clock for each player (they aren’t that expensive). Or you could do it on a lap top. Set clocks for 20 minutes at the start of combats. All comments and die rolls to be made while the clock is running. If the clock ends before the combat, player drops to the ground from exhaustion.

5. Standardized breaks. Every half hour, every hour – DM’s discretion. No one to leave the table except at breaks. No one to pee or shit except at breaks. Hold it, pace yourself. You wouldn’t get up in the middle of a movie unless your bladder is bursting, and that’s two hours. All I’m asking for is forty five bloody minutes of your undivided attention.

6. NO food. Drinks are acceptable, provided belching and other unnecessary display of drinking is made. Eat during the breaks or – guess what – eat at your fucking home before you come. Smoking doesn’t bother me, but it bothers the asthmatics I play with.



These are not a great deal to ask. You know how I know? Because a vast number of responsible, “fun” activities require them as automatic principles under which the activity is done. Have you played in a band? Have you practiced yoga or ichido? Have you performed in a theatre? Have you sat in a theatre or at the opera with other people? These are events served with a healthy helping of shut-the-fuck-up, people are trying to improve themselves here.

You know, thinking and learning any game or activity requires concentration and good listening skills. It requires a degree of discipline, the desire to quell one’s spontaneous bullshit in order to hear about things which are sincerely important, and spread them to other people. Nothing I’ve suggested goes beyond a simple person’s desire to occupy his or her mind with the subject at hand.

D&D has consistently been, in my experience, the second worst offender when it comes to poor manners, poor habits and unbelievably infantile self-proclaiming posturing. The worst, of course, is any bar with a television where you’re trying to get solemnly drunk. The principal reason most people do not take D&D seriously upon first investigating it is the impression that everyone involved is a screaming infant. It is also the unspoken attitude of those at your office who look away when you mention the game.

To improve, behavior and manners are the place to start. Perhaps not to the degree I’m suggesting here. But if you can’t begin to implement even a moderate control along these lines, your only real option is to boot these babies out of your house and out of your life.

Or admit you’re one yourself.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Polytheism

Forgive me. This is a favorite subject, and I have been putting it off wondering how to do a direct, to the point article about D&D. Turns out, I don’t want to.

Wade through all this or not. I will get to the subject at hand, but I am going to wax for awhile.

Whether or not there is reason to believe in a group of gods, or a single god, the conception of polytheism was a technological revolution, one which happened certainly before most of the physical evidence we have from Neolithic society. The association of things, forces and creatures with god-beings allowed humans to conceptualize their universe, prior to any conception of biology or physiology beyond the fact that living matter consisted of pieces that could be divided (some of it edible, some not). In a culture where virtually nothing about the culture changed from the beginning of one’s life to the end, it was believable that rocks and trees, rivers and sky, things which everyone related to in the same manner, were somehow entities with which mere humans could not easily communicate. Humans were mortal. Nature was not. That was evident.

At first we can presuppose that these entities were not ‘gods’ as we view them. The Romans retained the belief into the Christian era that all things had within them a ‘genius,’ a spark that enabled it to intrinsically hold the parameters of existence. The genius of water allowed it to flow; the genius of cattle allowed them to reproduce, and some of that genius was transferred when one ate certain parts of the cow. Most polytheistic cultures have similar such entities ... a sort of pre-god concept.

Through cultural explanations of the gods to themselves, humans steadily built up characterizations – usually anthropomorphications – to describe the gods. This is, of course, the first representation of gods as ‘persons.’

The first sustained representation of human-like characteristics in gods (that we can know of) made the obvious connection that all things come from the earth – just as humans come from a mother. The obvious extrapolation was based upon the periods of earth’s seasons: that first everything is new; that then everything is birthed; and that finally everything dies.

Newness became represented by the Virgin, the woman who is a child and has not yet been impregnated. Birth is the Mother, who tends the child and brings the child to adulthood. Finally, Death is the Crone, the old woman who is barren and can no longer bring forth children.

These three goddesses have led to a poorly researched belief that early human culture, prior to historical references, was matriarchal in construct. For four decades historians, classicists, archaeologists and anthropologists, many of them substantial giants in their fields, have struggled to prove this theory, as it helps explain the early human’s fascination with women as something other than a sexual fetish. Sadly, they have yet to provide any defacto factual evidence of this so-called pre-patriarchal culture. But they keep trying.

Part of the argument presented relates the demise of the three goddesses following the rise of regimented civilization, about the 3rd millennium BCE. Following this period the two best documented polytheistic cultures – Egypt and Mesopotamia – develop dominant patriarchal gods who have been traditionally seen as ‘leading’ their pantheons. Marduk of Sumeria’s most famous myth tells of his slaughtering Tiamat, the chromatic dragon from the Monster Manual, and using her body and blood to fashion the earth and the sea. Male slaughters female, patriarchal exploitation of women replaces matriarchal society. But it bears as much relation to evidence as the sea’s relationship to blood.

To return to the characterization of the Mother: the name that most commonly arises is that of Ana, who was the Grandmother Goddess to the Sumerians, who predates Sumerian history by about six millennia. From our perspective, this seems an obscure god – it is likely that you do not associate the name with a particular god from your readings of Greek, Roman, Norse or Sumerian religion.

But now I’d like to blow your mind and make a few connections you’ve never made. This is assuming, of course, that you have at least some structural understanding of history, our world, and our culture.

Goddess Anna of Sumeria would also be named Anah in Egypt, who was the mother of Meri-Ra (the Hebrew Asherah), the feminine principal of water from which came all life. In Syria she would be called Anath, the destroyer; in Canaan, the Jews would call her Anat (from the Ras Shamra texts, which reveal Canaanite foundations of the Bible). The Canaanites would call Ana the ‘Grandmother of God,’ specifically the grandmother of Yahweh, the god the Jews would worship as the one god. The Egyptians believed that Ana’s daughter Meri-Ra was the consort of Yahweh.

Remember as you read this that human culture, prior to the ‘discovery’ of the one true god, created multiple myths to explain the rise of new gods and how they interrelated with one another. Long before Yahweh became monotheistic, he has a long history of existing as part of a complicated pantheon associated with Syria and Egypt, predating Abraham’s vision circa 2300 BCE.

For the record, Ana was also Di-Ana, ‘Queen of Heaven.’ Diana’s shrines throughout Europe would later be identified with the Christian Madonna, and often even the image of Diana herself would be co-opted by churches. Ana was widespread – the Celts would call her Anu, the cult spreading through central and northern Europe. In numerous Black Sea cultures she was Nana, and ultimately Nanna, the incarnation of the Norse goddess Freya within that culture’s belief that Balder’s wife (Freya) was also Balder’s mother. Similar myths would be associated with varying Celtic cultures – that the mother gave birth to the son, who later married the mother to enable crops to grow before she murdered him.

Western Celts would yield up the name Morg-Ana, or the Goddess of Death, or ‘Invincible Queen Death.’ Attacking the name of Ana among pagans and devil worshippers, Christians would commonly attack Black Annis, or ‘Anna of the Angles’, in describing the cults of witches.

However, at the same time, Christianity would also sanctify Ana, as ‘St. Anne,’ who was the mother of Mary and therefore the Grandmother of Christ (and therefore of God, get it?). Note that St. Anne’s daughter Mary has the same name as Anah’s daughter Meri of Egypt, who was the consort of Yahweh and also the mother of the Jewish ‘god’. Does it not seem obvious that the Jews, steeped in Egyptian myth, having been taught the cult of Yahweh, would of course know of his wife? Why assume that ‘Mary’ mother of Christ was a real person? Because you are told that she was a real person? You need to take a course in Religious studies. All myths are always invented after the fact.

The parallels get complex and profound – but it pretty much breaks down to this. The cultural significance of a mother goddess was developed, and thereafter stolen by multiple western cultures who spread the word through trade. Where and when these terms were first used is anyone’s guess – our only evidence comes from when we happen to find an artifact that has happened to survive the 40 to 60 centuries from whence this Goddess Ana came.

In terms of D&D (at last!), the fault lies in the rather bland portrayals of the gods as glorified monsters, along with the assumption that these varying gods from their varying pantheons are isolated individuals. Nothing could be further from the truth. Inanna, who is yet another incarnation of Ana from later Sumerian culture, is the same fertility deity as Ishtar – they are one and the same. Ishtar is merely the later Babylonian equivalent, who is also Isis (the Egyptian ‘Oldest of the Old’), a later Egyptian incarnation of Anah combining elements of Meri-Ra. Isis is also said to have given birth to a son (Horus) who matured to become Osiris, whom she married and then devoured in order to give birth to Horus again – thus perpetuating the seasonal cycle. It is said that the Nile flood begins as a teardrop from Isis at the death of Osiris – the death she is responsible for. But then, the ‘devouring’ was not done with the mouth.

Oh, and while I’m here, it is ridiculous to imagine that the gods represented by stats in the Deities and Demigods are anything like their namesakes. How many hit points has a god whose teardrop begins the Nile flood?

Inanna, Diana, Isis, Hel, Hecate, Ishtar, Astarte, Kali – all the same goddess. The same is true for Zeus, Ra and Odin, and for Pan and Loki, and right on down the line. The principal failure in depicting gods in the D&D universe has been the effort to depict gods who have no religion whatsoever. As I said, as monsters.

It is an interesting bit of cognitive dissonance that the gods depicted in the Deities, and indeed throughout most of D&D, have little or nothing to do with the cultural period in which D&D is supposed to be taking place: the middle ages. Even in China, Japan and India the pure worship of the demigod systems in those places has been pre-empted by Buddhism, Taoism and the Upanishads (proposing a monist-pantheist system), all prior to the 9th century. Thus, the makers of D&D ask you to play out the period of knights and witches, but no Christianity, please. Certainly, no Judaism, Islam or Zoroastrianism – though these religions represent the bulk of belief by the time knights began to joust.

As such, we’re left with a bunch of meaningless sacrifices which are meant to take place at certain times and in certain places (based on a Celtic-Druidic experience, for the most part, dating from before 400 BCE) ... and that’s it. At best, a few myths are dragged out for the purposes of creating a hook for an adventure, but most, particularly the unpleasant life-structuring models, are deliberately ignored. Characters and players dwell in a 21st century mindset surrounded by capitalism, atheism and liberalism, none of which requires of them any social or moral responsibility whatsoever – except that most campaigns usually retain a dictatorially imposed politically correctness.

It wouldn’t be popular to suggest that in a campaign that incorporated actual deities of incomprehensible power, every action and step of a party would have consequences of Gilgameshian or Beowulfian dimensions (Beowulf having been conceived of when the Norse were not yet monotheistic). The principal theme would be fate. I’ll repeat that for those of you at the back who are not paying attention: FATE.

Hundreds, even millions of entities (if Hinduism is to be taken as a template), possessing powers on a magnitude unrepresented in D&D, not limited by the mortal’s conception of time and space, could only see intelligent entities within the Prime Material plane as pawns, to be marched out and sacrificed as necessary. Only imagine a chessboard with a thousand sides, marching pawns forward from a thousand directions, with some gods possessing many pawns and some gods possessing very few – and each god marking babies upon birth as best they are able. This one will grow to be a mage, and this one a fighter, and this one’s death from a trap which will separate his head from his body at twenty-two will feed blood to the insects whose actions over the thirty hours that follow will certify their reincarnation into powerful titans whose loyalty to this god will enable him to win these squares on this portion of the board.

How does one run that as a DM? How do you explain to your party that it’s not you that has decided they will die before they reach Ragnard, but the entity who is called Gragnoth in these lands north of the Sewwar River? That they only manner in which Gragnoth will not clamour for their deaths is if they cease to use leather, leather in any form, to appease the Goddess Usarion, who hates Gragnoth and will use her influence to see to it his 30 HD dire wolves are diverted at the critical juncture. Yet once they’ve renounced leather and all its evils, who is to say that Orswidth, God of Cattlemen, will not stir up the ire of two massive cattle butcherers at the very next tavern the party enters ...

Where does it end? You want hooks? You’ve got infinite hooks. Gentle reader, you cannot help thinking in terms of gods as make-believe. Every religion has explained the absence of gods by the argument that the gods really don’t care that much. But we know the gods don’t care that much because there are no gods. Can it be true if there ARE gods, and they have access to your world?

Last point: I follow the principle that the gods were invoked by intelligent humanoids, and that obedience and worship of the gods creates stronger, more capable gods. People believe in the gods, who gain power from that belief.

Thus the motivation for gods to interact in the business of the world. To gain believers, to gain power, to crush opponents by crushing their believers. So the technology of Polytheism, in my world, is the creation of gods who will actually make life easier (as they actually exist and can actually answer prayers) – but the price that is paid is the conflict that follows.

Bringing me to a small teaser, to be handled later: the gods, I argue, believe in me. I am thus the DM, and the most powerful being. I did, after all, create the world. Monotheism is therefore the discovery of ME.

But that is for another day.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

The Council of Passaic

I’m reading in several places lately about making it possible for kids to learn RPG games, with the hope of getting them young and getting them interested, and thereby creating a wider interest. This is an answer to the general failure of businesses - publications and game development - to succeed in a thin market, along with the belief that interest in the game is waning.

The community has long felt that D&D ‘ought’ to be more important than it is. I seem to remember decades ago that it was believed to have jumped the shark sometime in the mid to late 80s … before the reboot of 2.0, naturally. I couldn’t say the game was more popular then than it is now - nor less popular, as far as that goes.

I think it is a good idea to teach people how to play the game - except that the whole community has yet to determine exactly how one plays the game. It would seem a good start to have some kind of conference regarding how this might be done. As a student of history, I’d like to offer a template which players of the game could use for that conference.

In the 320s AD a fellow with some boffo political pull and a hard on for establishing a regimented system of rules for the players in his campaign gathered together the high muck-e-mucks at a place named Nicaea, which was relatively the center of the intellectual world - and conveniently just off the beaten path, very much like the sort of places chosen for modern Global Summits. Mr. Boffo’s name was Constantine (later to be played by Keanu Reeves in the movie - no, not actually), and the role-playing game that had his community by the short hairs was called ‘Christianity.’

Constantine had essentially two problems: the first, how to get more players into the game, and the second, how to settle the constant and annoying questions arising from in-bickering among the players. By that time, Christianity was more or less in its 4th Edition days (as published by Tertullian). Augustine of Hippo would bring out the 5th Edition in another couple of decades - but of course that’s not knowledge Constantine had the privilege of having.

(As an aside, there have been Seven editions for Christianity, not counting the multiplicity of game formats sparked off by Martin Luther in the 16th century. In most cases, the 2nd Edition, published by Paul, remains the most popular. We think we have problems).

Constantine gathered from far and wide the most respected and best known DMs from throughout the Res Publica (go with it, it’s Latin), to have a sit down conference and hammer this thing out once and for all. The actual number of attendees has never been certainly established - somewhere about 300 is a fair guess. Most of them were from the Eastern Empire and most of them spoke Greek. Constantine himself, though ostensibly a Roman DM, preferred Greek and had his digs in Constantinople, a thoroughly Greek city at the time.

Now, mind you, not all those interested in the game were invited. Many of those who had established rogue Chry-Cons (Christian conventions, sometimes called ‘churches’) not recognized by the self-imposed patent holders were definitely not invited to attend, particularly since they had refused to pay their user fees for the better part of a century. Meletius in particular, a successful but obviously ignorant grognard dwelling in Egypt, was singled out for disenfranchisement. Another gamer group that got the boot were those who had been using tables and modules written by a cantankerous fellow, Arius, without the original publisher’s approval.

Without getting into too much detail, the 300 DMs argued and threatened one another for thirty days (an unconfirmed period), finally establishing the set principles Constantine was looking for - a sort of 4.5 Edition. However, there were still certain problems with those failing to recognize the importance of those game decisions made at Nicaea.

Those were tougher days, however, and the Constantine-led Nicaean games committee were playing for high stakes. It was quite clear what needed to happen, and so the Christian role-players set out immediately to get the job done. Gathering together in mass armies, they sought out and butchered all other gamers who disagreed with them. Oh, I don’t mean the wrote a few strong letters and banned them from local game stores. I mean real, honest to God slaughter … hah hah, I made a funny.

They went after the rogue gamers, and after the gamer’s families, and then for good measure they decided to massacre all those people who had been playing silly board games and card games (damn pagans). First they killed all the stay at home pagans, and then they went to the borders and killed all the pagans there, and then they went deep into the wildernesses in every direction and found pagans who had never heard of the Christian game, and killed them too.

This was before missionary work - that came centuries after. I’m talking about the pagans in Scythia and northern Germania. By today’s standards, they didn’t go that deep into the wilderness.

Within a hundred years, and after the 5th Edition, the Christians did manage to organize their RPG to the degree when it was now ready to be taught to young children. Unfortunately, a tougher and crazier group of people who didn’t play any game at all except how to kill your neighbor with a fork (or any other handy implement) suddenly came out of the East and made it very hard to teach anyone anything for several hundred years.

But Christianity managed to survive that, and the Viking role-playing game besides, making it possible for many children to be thoroughly indoctrinated right down to the present day. It makes you proud to think that 17 centuries ago a lot of narrow minded men were able to accomplish so much good work.

We can learn a great deal from their passion. Clearly we need to gather together all those souls who have really proven themselves through their public relations and their popularity - I suggest Passaic, New Jersey. Kind of the center of the intellectual world and kind of off the beaten path. Then, once those gentlemen (no women, obviously - we wouldn’t want to mess with a working template) decide what game we’re playing and how to play it, the mass executions can begin. Ah, those will be heady days.

Then we can put together a decent boxed set and really get this game off the ground. Damn, I can feel the groundswell now …

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Meditation

Strictly speaking, Meditation on the Civ IV tech chart is considerably out of place. It’s development comes thousands of years after the conception of polytheism (approximately 9th millennium BCE) and centuries after monotheism (approximately 2300 BCE). While on the chart it precedes ‘Priesthood’, it technically follows the development of priests by at least 2,000 years. This has always bothered me – but as I am using the chart as a template for the order of these articles, I am stuck with it now.

I haven’t very much to say about meditation. It is, in essence, the effort to surpass the material world, and the reflexive nature of thought as it is affected by the senses, in order to achieve a heightened state of consciousness or comprehension. It supposes that beyond the immediate material existence of the world there is something that can be understood.

I don’t wish to get into a debate on the truth of this belief – because this is my blog, my opinion is that this has been a dead end for more than 2,000 years. I do not believe that any person living today has gained any greater insight into Nirvana or any other state of awareness than Buddha did from the first. I recognize that millions believe in such a thing; I recognize that many, reading this, will feel compelled to rush to the defence of meditation.

As a technological progression, I propose that meditation was a brilliant strategy for the control of mass populations, a problem that was arising following the increase in food production and strategic defensive technologies developed before the 4th millennium BCE. What better than to encourage a substantial portion of the population that there does exist a nether-world, and that sitting and being passive for the resting portion of the day is a positive, purposeful activity? Also, how better to justify the behavior of certain holy persons, whose lack of activity must be supported by the community, and whose insight is depended upon for the ordering and direction of that community?

In D&D terms, meditation proves to be the gateway, technologically, to the existence of planes beyond the prime material. Gautama, in all his wisdom, is sitting beneath his tree, contemplating the purpose of life, and beyond all expectation turns his mind this way and that – only to find himself transcended to the astral plane, upon which he sits, full of curiosity. Does he rise, and begin to move along the silver strand upon which he finds it quite simple to balance, or does the startled discovery bring him back to this plane, eyes open and wondering?

As we ourselves are gadgetry oriented as dwellers of this earth, it is always an eye-opening experience to free ourselves from tools in order to view the world differently. This is the primary reason for the popularity of meditation in the West (the East has their own reasons), particularly the rise of that popularity in the 1960s and 70s when technological progress frightened many people into seeking alternative answers. The tool orientation we possess causes us to think always in terms of gateways and portals into the other planes, doorways with physical keys which players must seek, creating reasons for quests and a fairly provincial perception of planar interlinking.

Neither Zarathustra nor Gautama Buddha needed any such methodologies. To think was enough – but a difficult means by which to limit your players’ random forays into spontaneous etherealness. Still, the achievement of Nirvana (a higher plane) was not something done in a mere afternoon; it is certainly not something which a young, newly ordained holy person might manage fresh from the academy, monastery or lamasery. The highest level priests might be unable to manage it themselves – and having managed it once before, may not now have the necessary focus or karma to manage it precisely at the moment they need to avoid the charge of a rhino.

Meditation is the rise of the monk, who possesses some rather mundane magic feats as given by the Player’s Handbook, a weak collection than what might be possible for a thoughtful, eastern-minded player. No doubt the monk character needs overhauling, a thought that occurs to me as I write this post, but when would I have the time? I tend to run it as the book – more hit points, armor class two higher than the book suggests – but by the book. At some point, having achieved a bit of enlightenment in considering and writing about meditation, I realize I need to add certain features. A breaking of the prime material rules to start, and from there, wherever my mind takes me.

The single consideration I would not employ would be ‘spells’ for the monk character. Nor a series of automatic abilities to be gained at each level. These are both the standard answer, and I think for the monk both fail to capture the essence of the class. But I shall think on that.

While I have a moment to discuss the planes of existence, I think every DM has at some time or other has jumped the players into another existence to provide fodder for the campaign. I once compelled my players to run in the small world of Minaria from the game Divine Right, simply because I was pounding together several aspects of trade and world design (that would have been two decades ago). If I felt it added to a campaign, I wouldn’t hesitate to throw my characters into anything from Paranoia to the Traveller Universe, or even random jumps onto the game maps of Ogre, The Creature That Ate Sheboygan or Awful Green Things from Outer Space ... the parameters of those games redefined by standard D&D rules, of course – I’m a purist.



Too much of that sort of thing spoils a campaign, of course. It also works best in campaigns that have gone on for years, Saturday after Saturday, so that the characters themselves get a feel for the culture shock of roaming the hallways on board a Ferengi trader or going toe-to-toe with a troop of British Grenadiers on the deck of John Paul Jones’s ship.

I have a book to recommend, if one is looking for a template for outer planes of existence that far surpasses the rather juvenile design from the Player’s Handbook: Number of the Beast by Robert A. Heinlein. Not a favorite book of mine by some who is certainly a favorite author, but the math is first rate and its a good read one time at least.

I have only a last note, which I’m not going to expand upon: if pottery is the beginning of magic incorporating transmutation, then meditation is the beginning of all magics defined as ‘divination’.


P.S. For those of you who might be interested in Minaria, some deeply possessed DM has done great work here.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Meeting Carl

This last Monday, I had a visit from Carl, who is one of the three masters of the blog “Three Hams Inn,” to be found among the links to the right. Prior to a few quick opportunities to speak on the web and by phone, Carl and I were complete strangers to one another. As chance would have it, he was almost in the neighbourhood, touring this part of Canada with his friends ... and setting up the day of the meeting, Carl then proceeded to blow me away with his effort to drive three hours of his way so that the two of us might meet face to face.

I don’t when I’ve felt this touched. Carl is terrific fellow, a sense of humour, generous to a fault and a damn fine dinner conversationalist. We only had three short, short hours together, but very much was said and I hope to say that we both came away from the meeting with much to think about. There were many questions and many answers. I did my best to answer all of his. I know he answered all of mine – it was only a shame there wasn’t more time.

What can I say? Since beginning on the course of my life, from my time as a child to the present, I have always felt a kinship to a certain kind of person. I remember when I saw the movie ‘Revenge of the Nerds’ in the theatre back in ‘84, with my nerd friends, we were sitting in the row in front of a group of girls who didn’t know what nerds were – amazing as it might be, once it was not a well-understood concept. The girls certainly did not understand why we were so pumped for the film. I remember in trying to explain it to them, I opened my arms wide and cried out, “These are my People!”

Turns out, Carl is also one of us.

I don’t think for a moment he would mind that appellation. Like me, he lives on computer, not merely on line but on what dances he can make a computer perform. Like me, he can rush through a range of topics in a short time, and never seem to be changing the subject.

I must admit, with the friends I have, whom I have all known for years, it was odd to try explaining myself frankly to someone knew – and positively thrilling to be told, “nah, that’s not it,” at some comment I’ve made about myself. That’s confidence. And it is particularly endearing when that person can disagree me and sound reasonable, at the same time.

There’s more I could say, but much of it isn’t my place to spread around on the net, and certainly not in a whorehouse like this blog. I know mostly that I don’t have enough opportunities like this in my life, and I want more. It makes an old glory hound like me crave just a bit more attention, something that obviously isn’t good for me.

But damn, it was good to have a chance to know him better.

Oh, and Carl's puff piece about me is here.