RPG Blog Carnival: Religion

Ah! There is still time for me to get my post in for this month’s RPG Blog Carnival, themed, much like this month’s issue of Roolipelaaja (In which I incidentally had an article about Pathfinder RPG and reviewed Pathfinder Chronicles: Campaign Setting. There was also a hilarious article about Jesus and one about a campaign playing Hezbollah guerillas in the 1980’s.), and hosted by The Dice Bag.

This is actually one of my standard rants topics on IRC, expressed now for the first time as a blog post. I think the starting point was when I looked at the D&D 3.0 sourcebook Deities & Demigods that I’d just bought and wondered: “What the hell am I supposed to do with this? Who the hell needs this crap?”

While the book does have some stunning art (in both good and bad), what it amounts to is a presentation of overly complicated rules for making gods. I’ve played one or another incarnation of D&D since 1997, and I can count on the fingers of one hand the amount of times I’ve even heard of anyone needing the combat stats for a deity (Of course, I am only talking in context of D&D – in Exalted, for example, you are quite expected to go an lay the smack down upon gods when they get uppity. However, it also operates with a quite different definition of ‘god’.).

Religion and faith are one of the big things that can make a fantasy setting alive, and pretty much every campaign can find some use for them in bringing some depth to the world and the characters. The cleric is one of the core four PC classes, and of the other seven, the paladin, the ranger, the druid and the monk all have varying degrees of spirituality attached, whether religious or purely philosophical. This stuff is in play starting at first level.

So, one is led to wonder why all these sourcebooks where the main emphasis is on the gods’ stats. You can’t really bring a full-fledged god into play before epic levels in a way that would require stats, and even the avatars are a bit iffy. I do fully support the concept of aspects, though, first introduced in Miniatures Handbook. For a nifty interpretation of aspects, by the way, read Paul S. Kemp’s Resurrection, the last book of the War of the Spider Queen series.

In addition to being utterly useless in the vast majority of games, statting out the deity and telling that he’s worth this much XP somehow does cheapen the whole concept. Omnipotence just ain’t what it used to be (and, of course, isn’t even an option in a polytheism). This is an atheist talking, by the way.

What I would prefer to see in supplements is exploration of the role of churches, religions, and faith in the setting as opposed to what the big guys themselves are up to. Dogma, centres of worship, duties of clergy, orders associated with the church, holy days. That can be relevant to any campaign, starting at character generation. It’s a great source of hooks for both adventures and characters.

I am not saying that there should be no stats for gods at all, or that there is no place in the game for epic confrontations with the gods themselves. It’s a genre staple, after all. However, I think that the primary deity sourcebooks should leave those out. Of those times that I’ve heard of characters fighting a full god in D&D, only a single one used stats from a sourcebook, and that was a friend’s campaign in 7th grade, where they killed off the entire Greek pantheon. I understand someone also had sex with a dead dragon, and his thingy fell off, which is kinda telling about the tone of the game.

The rest are cases like Q1 Queen of the Demonweb Pits, Age of Worms and at least one standalone adventure Dungeon where the point was to go kill a god. This, I think, is how it should be done. Give the stats with a ready purpose. An adventure, or even better, an entire campaign, culminating in an act of deicide. That’s epic, that’s how it’s supposed to go. A sourcebook with stuff like the combat stats for gods of agriculture and small forest creatures is just a waste of paper.

Following, a list of examples on how to do it or not:

Faiths & Avatars, Powers & Pantheons and Demihuman Deities for AD&D 2E, published by TSR for the Forgotten Realms line. I hold these to be exemplar, despite containing stats for every god and their avatars. When compared with the useful material, they are dwarfed. Here, we get church organisation, centres of worship, holy days, cleric duties, adventuring garb, and even full-colour illustrations of priests of every faith. The font is delightfully small, too. Each book is crammed as full of information as possible. This is how it’s done, guys.

Faiths & Pantheons, for D&D 3.5, by Wizards of the Coast, for Forgotten Realms. Guys, you did it before, not once, but three times. Why drop the ball now? F&P is but a shadow of the former three books, and if one owns them, apart from some crunchy bits like the prestigeclasses (I love the Techsmith), this offers not only nothing new but also a lot less. Also, the art is staggeringly poor at some points. This is done in the same vein as the 3.0 Deities & Demigods. Explanations above as to why it sucked.

Faiths of Eberron, for 3.5, by Wizards of the Coast, for the Eberron setting. Eberron is an interesting setting in that the existence of the gods is uncertain and it’s the cleric’s faith that brings him spells, regardless of whether he actually believes in a deity or just an alignment philosophy, and whether his alignment fits his church. This brings us the interesting Catholic church analogy of the Church of the Silver Flame, where the teachings are lawful good but many of the big shots are lawful evil. FoE is a pretty good book, at least in this one respect.

Gods & Magic, for D&D 3.5, by Paizo Publishing, for their Pathfinder Chronicles line. The main complaint I have about this book is that it’s too short. Otherwise, it fits very well what I want in a deity sourcebook. Minimal rules content, no deity stats, emphasis on the church in the world. Also, Cayden Cailean. Incidentally, the writer is Sean K. Reynolds, who also brought us the…

“Core Beliefs” article series in Paizo’s paper Dragon, during the last year or two. The articles went over the gods in Player’s Handbook in great detail, with many pages devoted to each deity. They didn’t have time to cover all of the gods, but they got most of them. High points I think include the articles on Wee Jas, which made her portfolio of law, death, magic and vanity make sense, and Pelor, which made a vanilla neutral good sun god actually cool. It saddens me that there is no comprehensive sourcebook on Greyhawk deities.

Also, there’s a very good blog post on the Sinister Adventures site, Designing Gods, where Nicolas Logue talks about, well, designing gods. Contains art that’s probably Not Safe For Work. Very pretty art, though.

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My Top Five PCs

Noisms over at Monsters and Manuals made a post listing his Top Five Characters Ever.

I thought, why not?

My list reflects my unfortunate tendency to end up behind the GM screen for anything that’s not Dungeons & Dragons. Actually running a character for something else is rare for me, and the most common situation is a World of Darkness game, in any edition, that folds two sessions into the campaign. There have also been Shadowrun games that folded before the game ever started, and a Heavy Gear game that folded two sessions in. Aaaaanyway, without further ado, My Top Five Characters of All Time:

1. Caldour Dalaith: A half-elf bard from the old FaerunMUD, which I’ve mentioned before. It was a Forgotten Realms -based MUD, using an Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 2nd edition ruleset. I think Caldour was the first character I actually roleplayed well, got immersed in. He was a bit of a scoundrel, did not always do the right thing, and preferred to sit in a bar and sip lattes or perform poetry rather than go into the woods to hunt ogres. Caldour’s repertoire of songs, poems and stories consisted of a few poems and songs from different Volo’s Guides (“Jonstan the Rover” from Volo’s Guide to the Dalelands, among others), the tale of Lafarallinn from Monster Mythology and a handful of things I composed myself and cannot bear to look at anymore. While he wasn’t a great adventurer, he was a joy to roleplay.

One time, Caldour accompanied a pair of wizardesses of questionable moral fibre (and not in the cool way, either) to a distant village in the Dalelands. The road was cut by monsters, and Cal, being a bard, was unable to make the trip on his own. I do not recall anymore why we were going to that flea-speck of a hamlet, but it is not relevant. What is relevant is that in the end, they up and left and abandoned Caldour in the village.

While he eventually did make his way back from the backwoods before they taught him to play the banjo, by a mixture of sneaking and running for his sweet life, he was thoroughly annoyed. Within a few weeks, all inn noticeboards from Waterdeep to Dalelands were festooned with a fresh poem from an anonymous quill, which,  while naming no names, had some quite recognisable characters, and a satirical note, embellishing their character flaws. I do not recall their reaction, though. I do still have a copy of the poem, though I refuse to post it here. Suffice to say that I was around fourteen at the time, and it contains the rhyme “incants – splats”.

2. Varl Kadek: Varl was another scoundrelly sort of character, except that he was a pure fighter, wielding a falchion, and did in fact possess a functional moral compass. It did not always agree with the party’s paladin, Silas, but he thought not wearing a hair shirt was a sin, so what could he know?

Varl was one of my characters from a number of Scarred Lands campaigns I played online, with the enthusiastic fan Nightfall as the GM. Nightfall had quite a forum presence at the time, and eventually the SL line developers wrote him in as an NPC in the Shelzar: City of Sins sourcebook. Some others were the gnoll ranger Khamut, prophesied to unite his people, and the dwarven battle priest Benkk Axecleft.

Varl, though, was the first. In the campaign called The Irregulars of Hollowfaust, he, Sir Silas, an elven ranger called Ban, a bishounen necromancer and a cavalcade of one-hit wonder clerics who got killed by the dozen (a continuous theme in Nightfall’s campaigns) ventured into a desolated area within the city of Hollowfaust, where free-willed and malevolent undead roamed. The first cleric of the party to die was Ophelia, killed by a powerful undead sutak sorcerer. Sutaks were the Scarred Land donkey folk. Don’t ask.

The sorcerer initially forced us to retreat, but we rested, recouped, and came back with our second cleric, Hannah, who didn’t die until later. We tracked down the sutak and, after destroying his pet vilewight, Varl and Silas charged their adversary, with the warcry “Your ass is mine!”

Not satisfied with just killing the monster, Varl then dragged its body back to the city proper and sold it to the necromantic academy for a few thousand gold pieces.

3. Dar: While, in all honesty, any of my Living Greyhawk characters would qualify for this list, I choose Dar. Dar is a scout/ranger of Suloise extraction, and formerly a soldier of the Scarlet Brotherhood, who managed to successfully evade capture by the Ahlissan liberators and actually joined their army for a time, until he disobeyed a direct order from a superior officer. Said order was to track whoever it was that eviscerated these two guards thirty feet from the camp, in torchlight, without making a sound or alerting anyone. (Said whoever, in turn, was Krrnkar Ga’ruth, a half-orc barbarian under the effect of every buff spell the party could muster, including invisibility and silence.) So, Dar was sentenced to the Calling Mines and later liberated, and then began his career as my player character.

While the indoctrination of the dogma of racial purity didn’t last too long when exposed to other cultures, Dar’s take on it was not that even other cultures can be equal to the Scarlet Brotherhood’s, but that even the Scarlet Brotherhood is ruled by morons, just like every other state. He’s a freelance adventurer, now, with nominal loyalty to other ex-Scarlet Brotherhood veterans. Dar is nothing if not adaptable, but he does not suffer fools gladly and worships Wee Jas, the goddess of death.

4. Kílt Bucchert: A Flan fighter from Saltmarsh, who adventured in a Shackled City game before I had to move. His primary function in the game was to hit things with his greataxe until they stopped hitting back, which he performed adequately. His secondary function was to land the party in a number of messes.

In the last session that I played, we were wrapping up the fourth module of the series, “Zenith Trajectory,” where we were tasked to retrieve a dwarf named Zenith from a kuo-toa outpost deep in the Underdark. However, the kuo-toa were worshipping him as some sort of god in flesh, and he had a bad case of Stockholm syndrome. Well, we killed most of the kuo-toa and then somehow managed to convince Zenith that his army was waiting near the surface for him to lead them in battle against the city of Cauldron. However, a number of his bodyguards tagged along, which posed a problem. We wanted to get rid of them, but couldn’t attack them openly or Zenith would attack us, and he was a tough hombre. We were not sure who’d win in a fight, especially since our cleric was out in the jungle, sampling mushrooms.

So, Kílt hit upon a plan. As the party marched up the tunnels of the Underdark, he raised his voice in a Keoish marching song. This, according to the rules, increased our chances for a random encounter tenfold. In the second day of our journey, we got one. The DM gave me the dice, since it was my encounter. He told me not to roll a three or less, or we’d be screwed. I rolled 02, on a d100. The result was a behir.

A behir, for those of you not in the know, is a lightning-spitting lizard the size of a Mack truck, with a hundred legs and a bad attitude. However, they are not unintelligent, and while the kuo-toa were still recovering from the surprise, Kílt managed to parley the behir into only eating the fishmen and beating up the dwarf, in exchange for some of our heavier loot. Fortunately, behirs aren’t evil, or it might not have worked.

5. Endivar: Finally, there’s Endivar, who was a great character to play not because of what he did but because of how he was played. His character class was binder, from Tome of Magic. They’re a class that specialises in the Faustian bargain, where they bind a vestige, a loose spirit that’s slipped through the cracks of reality, to themselves, letting it ride their mind and exert some control over their actions in exchange for power. The powers are wildly varying and depend on the vestige being bound. Skill bonuses, weapon proficiencies and virtual feats are common, and most of them also have some really weird stuff, like a ram attack given by Amon’s horns, or the ability light yourself on fire without hurting, or Leraje’s trick shot that allows you to hit two enemies with the same arrow.

Now, binders are often confused with all sorts of demon worshippers and other unsavoury types, and not wanting to end up the main attraction at a barbeque party, Endivar pretended to be a priest. His character sheet read “archivist”. The DM, of course, was in on this. To avoid tipping off other players about what Endivar could do, I typed up reference sheets of his powers so I wouldn’t need to bring the Tome of Magic with me to games.

I think some of the group eventually figured out what he was, but not all.

One of the stunts he pulled in his first session was walking on the deck of a ship known to harbour werewolves, with a lit torch. Then he turned to the other characters, said “Let me handle this,” and lit himself on fire with the torch. He then proceeded to slap werewolves silly. One of them eventually bit him and he dropped, but so did the attacker.

Friday Night Roundup

A combination of schoolwork and NaNoWriMo has conspired me from updating for a while. For now, though, my deadlines have been staved off and my novel has stalled, so I can update here, for once.

The results of the Paizo open call came in – didn’t make it, which does not surprise me, but the next one is starting on the 11th. Also, Josh Frost gave feedback on my proposal, telling me how it stands to be improved.

Apparently, I have a real problem with passive tense.

Seems Green Ronin is also looking for writers, for a Freeport module in True20. I’m not going to be writing for that one, though. Though Freeport is a great setting, I’m not familiar with True20 and though I know it’s light and could probably acquaint myself with it easily enough, I’d rather not have to buy a new book and my time is limited. Besides, the likelihood of actually ending up writing the full adventure is slim.

A partial reason for my long silence is the sharp decline in the amount of gaming that I get. These days, it’s mostly Pathfinder Society every few weeks, with me running. Sessions are short and though I like the campaign, I’d also like to see the other side of the screen every now and then, or, failing that, run a real campaign of my own.

To paraphrase the author Elaine Cunningham, organised play campaigns are like chocolate chip cookies. They’re tasty, bite-sized, and addictive, but not really a good basis for a diet.

I’m itching to run one of the Paizo adventure paths, or perhaps a Pathfinder RPG campaign based on the Falcon’s Hollow adventures. Or Dark Heresy. Or anything else, really.

It’s the creative aspect of the game that I want, really. Running PFS, while fun, doesn’t really allow or encourage me to tell a longer story. Self-contained, small adventures with little continuity between them are difficult, like that. Even playing a character, I get to create a background and a personality, to ground it in the setting and then apply it in different situations.

Next time, I will be talking about that grounding into setting, by the way, in the context of the November RPG Blog Carnival.