Sunday 31 October 2010

Holy Hooks

Following on from my recent post about the portrayal of religion in games, I thought that I’d get some hooks together on the subject. All too often, the poor old cleric is treated as some glorified paramedic and undead-repellent, with nary a thought for the social structures into which he must – by virtue of his role as a priest of the church – fit. I’ve already mentioned my idea of a threefold split in the functions of clerics into healers, spiritual warriors and temple administrators and may flesh that out in a post one day but this post is for those DMs who want to give the clerics in their campaigns a bit more to chew on when it comes to fleshing out their characters.

It should be noted that where I refer to “the church” I’m intending it to mean the dominant religion of that area, country, kingdom. Although there are some subtle (and in places much less than subtle) nods to incidents in our world’s history, no-one should take offence, because I’m certainly not giving it.

1) There’s been a war in heaven and power has changed hands. The souls of those who worshipped the old regime have been exiled into their old corpses who now rise from the graves. They are not malevolent, merely desperate for life again and will do anything to hold onto it. As can be imagined, the new regime’s clerics are not too happy with heretic zombies walking the earth, whilst the old regime’s clerics, low on power and devoid of the high-level spells they need, will do anything to regain power and restore their gods.
Enter the hapless party.

2) After a long and bloody war, in which both sides are exhausted, the sudden appearance of a cleric preaching forgiveness and reconciliation is very persuasive. That the cleric also preaches letting humanoids into the folds of the church is somewhat less orthodox but strangely enough, the humanoids are going for it – perhaps they’re fed up with war and have bought into the forgiveness message as well. Or perhaps they’re using it as an infiltration method. The DM must decide and the party must try to work it out.
A split within the humanoid ranks could be very interesting to play, especially as there will now be nice orcs and nasty orcs – both visually indistinguishable. Humanoid missionaries? Humanoid clerics of peace and forgiveness?
This won’t make the “only good orc is a dead orc” militants very happy either. Such subtleties are perhaps a little beyond them.

3) The new hierarch of the church is determined to stamp his mark on the faithful and that means rooting out corruption and venality lock stock and barrel. However, his latest scheme has raised more than a few eyebrows. To obtain closure on the previous incumbent, the new hierarch wants to put him on trial and condemn him formally by the church’s rules. Unfortunately, he died at least two years ago. This does not seem to bother the hierarch – he wants the man resurrected so that he can face justice. The party is hired to track down the body and bring it back for the ceremony to take place.
(such a thing really happened – google The Cadaver Synod to find out more and check out the picture!)

4) A very rich man has had a spiritual experience and decided that he needs to go on a pilgrimage to a distant shrine. He needs the party to provide escort. However, his family (or at least certain elements of it) are worried that when he gets there, his spiritual renaissance will be confirmed and he will tithe large sums of money to the church. They want him dead before he gets there. The church, on the other hand want him to arrive in one piece but wish to ensure that he is not disenchanted by the time he does. They will pay the party to keep the spiritual flame alive by staging some minor miracles or fortuitous happenings on the way and then making sure that something life-affirming and significant happens at the other end.

5) A miracle has occurred in the city – not only did a petitioner become cured at the shrine of the Goddess of Healing but a surge in spiritual energy has cured everyone within a mile’s radius of all that ailed them and as that area included at least two cemeteries, the dead not only walk the earth but are looking warm, vibrant and healthy.
All of this has led to a flock of pilgrims and new worshippers to the shrine and a surge in power for the Goddess of Healing. Cure spells work with double effect, the dead can be raised to a state of spiritual bliss and none of the new worshippers seems to be sick or ill in any way.
Surely this can only be good news for the city?
Er, well, no, not exactly. At the same time as the Goddess of Healing became Number One, the Gods of War and Valour slid down the chart. Denuded of followers who now view any violence as heretical, they can no longer provide holy powers for their clerics. Added to that is the fact that a war has been threatening for some months and seems ever more imminent and this means the city is wide open.
The clerics of War and Valour need to redress the balance somehow before it’s too late and that’s where the party come in. They may need to find a new disease which the Goddess cannot cure or perhaps work out a way of strengthening the hand of the Gods of War and Valour. Either way, it’s a tough call.

6) The party is hired by a bunch of mystics and astrologers who have heard that a long-lost deity is due to be reborn in a distant land. They need to get the mystics there, wait around while they authenticate the birth and – if it turns out to be true – protect the child from the insanely insecure potentate and his crack assassins who will doubtless be on the warpath.
The mystics are a bunch of otherworldly hippies who refuse to believe that anyone could wish harm to the child and will frown on shows of force, weaponry, etc, believing in their pseudo-philosophical arguments to win the day.

7) A relic of the church has been lost for centuries but now clerics believe that they have found clues as to its resting place – right under the main temple of a rival religion. Faction within the church have been struggling over what to do and now the “attack it, take it, burn it, level it and then start digging” faction is edging ahead. The more subtle elements within the church need the party to break in, find the relic and get out without starting a major religious war. Needless to say, the temple is protected by some fearsome safeguards.

8) The gods have spoken – their church is corrupt and the hierarchy must abase itself and go on a pilgrimage clad in sackcloth and ashes to atone for its greed and venality. Except that they’re not going to do that and need the party to discredit the revelation which says so. Unfortunately, the person to whom the revelation was vouchsafed is a very pious and well-liked individual whose reputation is more or less impeccable.

9) Someone has appeared who claims to be the long-awaited Chosen One. Miracles seem to be in plentiful supply but is he who he says he is, and if not, how is he doing his stuff? The party must try to find out for the established church whilst avoiding the zealous mobs and running the risk of being converted themselves.

10) Gold has been found in the lands inhabited by a confederation of tribes. To shift them would take a long military campaign and a lot of expenditure so the King has turned to the church to see if they can move in, convert the natives and somehow appropriate the lands. However, the natives have some quite impressive gods and shamans and the church is going to have its work cut out to convert them. So the party needs to come up with a solution – kill the shamans, eradicate the gods or just discredit them?

11) A suspiciously large amount of relics are issuing forth from an area recently conquered by the military. The vast majority are fake and are undermining the credibility of the church. However, some seem to be real; the party are hired by the church to head into the area and find out where the fakes are coming from and also to see what the source is for the real relics and if it can be secured by the church.

12) A local cleric has started to preach heretical doctrines but oddly enough his powers have not dried up. Church investigators sent to stop him have disappeared without trace and now the church wants the party to find out exactly what is going on and put a stop to it.
(the cleric may have been seduced by another god who is ‘spiritually funding’ him so that he does not lose his powers. The cleric is trying to win followers over to the heretical sect he aims to start and then use their backing to strengthen his god and mount a take-over bid for the church)

13) A senior cleric has declared that anyone bearing arms except in the service of the church is a danger and must be eradicated. The party have two choices – convert or disarm. The church has several practices and doctrines that are going to make a party’s life tricky and of course they would then be at the beck and call of the church and sent off to fight holy wars. There is also the constant threat of being denounced as heretics.

14) Either a kidnap or robbery has put a person or precious object in the hands of a cult which controls a city in a foreign land where things are very different and strangers would stand out like a sore thumb. The party is offered large sums of money/coerced/blackmailed into travelling there, going undercover and infiltrating the cult, rescuing the person/object and getting out again.

15) The Queen is distraught – her beloved husband has just died. Into this sad situation, a mendicant priest of a formerly unknown god has come, claiming that he can bring the king back to life but in order to do so, he will need human souls to pay off the God of the Dead. The queen is willing to try anything, as are the supporters of the old King, who fear being ousted by the Crown Prince. The established churches are a bit concerned, to put it mildly about the human sacrifice bit, but they are soon to be put under house arrest by the Queen’s troops as her mystical friend says their services and rituals are interfering with the chances of getting the King back.
The party may find that its cleric is drafted by the church hierarchy to try and work against the mystic, or they may be hired by the Crown Prince and his friends to investigate and put a stop to the goings-on.

16) A king has had a miraculous epiphany on the battlefield and now believes that a particular god saved his life. He is determined to impose this god’s worship on his population. The other religions that previously held sway are very upset by this and are determined to bring the king back to the old ways (they don’t want him dead since he has no heirs as yet and the chaos of a civil war could provoke a take-over by forces unfriendly). They aim to finish off the king’s new spiritual advisor, who is a young ex-slave and follower of the new religion. However, she is protected by some serious spiritual magic and the party are needed to break through her defences so that a gang of assassins can finish her off. This, so they hope, should discredit the new faith in the eyes of the king and leave the way open to restore the old ways.

17) A villain the party are chasing decides to head into the temple of a local deity and claim sanctuary. The clerics refuse the party entry as they are unbelievers. Even if they do manage to get in, powerful magic prevents all acts of violence on the premises.

18) The party is hired to track down the heir to a big estate (or even a noble title or kingdom). However, he’s got religion and has turned his back on the world and entered a religious order. Even if the party can get into the HQ of this order (a tricky job in itself as the entry requirements are quite demanding on ordinary adventurers), they will find that the heir has been sent off to some out-of-the-way place, the jungle, the wilderness, Craggy Island or wherever for spiritual work that the order has deemed good for his soul. The party’s backers need the heir, the order don’t want anyone to leave its ranks, and the heir is still wholly happy-clapping and does not want to go. He may even try to convert the party to his way of thinking.
And there is of course the threat of the wilderness/jungle/island to contend with as well.

19) The High Priest of the church has started behaving rather oddly. He has announced a review of the church’s doctrines, is preaching a message that seems to be undermining the church’s teachings and certain clerics have either been relocated to distant parishes or have ‘gone on a spiritual retreat and cannot be contacted’. New priests who nobody recognises have assumed positions of power. The party and their cleric need to find out what’s going on.
In fact, the High Priest has been replaced by a doppelganger, working for a rival mythos who want to discredit the church and use the resulting chaos to move in. Because of the authoritarian nature of the church, few are questioning the High Priest directly and those who do are falling foul of the inquisitorial courts. Into this atmosphere of fear and paranoia come the party, far more used to killing orcs and taking their stuff.

20) The party is hired to escort a band of rather irritating and obnoxiously pious pilgrims through dangerous territory to their shrine, a temple burrowed into the side of a cliff (again, very hard to get to, although this difficulty is held to be good for the soul). Deductions will be taken from the party’s pay for any pilgrim who doesn’t make it.
This, however, is not the main threat. When the party arrive, they find that other pilgrims already at the shrine are packing up and leaving in droves. The word is that the effigy of the deity has fallen on its face in the holy of holies and other artifacts and relics have become defaced or disfigured by pox or blemishes.
The pilgrims are a hardier bunch than those who are fleeing and try to persuade the party to go with them into the depths of the temple and find out what has happened. If the party seem reluctant, the pilgrims will go in anyway.
The temple has become infected with an evil presence which wants all the pilgrims’ souls and will ‘seal off’ the entrance once they are all in. If the party voyage in with the pilgrims, the presence will view them as a tasty hors d’oeuvre.

Friday 29 October 2010

Fear on Friday - The Spirit of Dark and Lonely Water

This Public Information Film was broadcast in 1973, when I was a lad of eight. It was well-intentioned, warning kids of the dangers of swimming where we weren't supposed to - but it scared the living **** out of me and many others of my generation. The sight of the hooded figure sends a shiver through me even today.

So, if you've not seen it before, enjoy! And if you watched it when you were a kid and got traumatised like everyone else, prepare to shiver once more!

Thursday 28 October 2010

The Battle of R'lyeh

Well, it's a year that I've been posting now. Time flies, and all that. I've got some good stuff coming up soon, so I'll mark the anniversary with a picture that Junior Grognard has done for me.

As you can see, Cthulhu is there, in all his Cyclopean glory, being attacked by a red dragon and many, many warriors. There is, if you look carefully, a water serpent in the river that flows down from the castle. And something with tentacles in the water at the bottom.

I particularly like the thunder and lightning - freak weather is always good for heralding the arrival of a Great Old One.

Monday 25 October 2010

Vampires...why does it have to be Vampires?

Unless your postcode is MOON 1, you'll have noticed that we seem to be in the middle of a prolonged period of vampire infestation. If it isn't drippy Edward, it's Justin Cronin and his infectious bloodsuckers, a theme mirrored by Del Toro and Hogan in The Strain. Then there's Blood and Ice by Robert Massello, The Vampire Diaries, Blood Ties, True Blood, Blade, the obligatory Buffy and Angel re-runs...

Afficionados of UK TV will remember Ultraviolet (the TV series not the film) which had a Vatican-backed government hit squad taking out bloodsuckers while they plotted to blot out the sun and farm us like livestock, but that was 12 years ago and at the time, innovative and fresh. Shame it only had one series.

I started to watch Cronos (del Toro again) the other night and found it quite interesting until the old guy escapes cremation and finds himself smouldering in the sun and getting a taste for blood. I turned off - Vampires! Again!

In RPGs, it's a common theme as well, with Ravenloft and VtM (or VtR, depending on your choice) leading the pack. The vampire is regarded as the mightiest of the undead in the MM and often serves as the Big Bad when it comes to evil opposition.

So is it heresy for me to say that I'm all vampired out? I can't get enthusiastic about drippy, sensitives, plague-ridden predators or castle-bound counts. In short, I think I'm going to axe them from my MM.

The vampire itself is an interesting phenomenon. I've often speculated that their mythology has a lot to do with anti-Semitism - the blood libel, the day that begins at sunset, the rejection of the cross. The psycho-sexual undertones of Gothic vampire horror; yeah, they're a great subject but I don't think they'll work for my game.

We all have pretty fixed ideas about the fanged ones. Some say they can't go out during the day. Others say they can drink animal blood instead of feasting on humans. Some say they convert only the willing, others that they prefer the unwilling. Whatever trope of vampirism we might adopt for our games, it's bound to clash with someone else's.

So, what to do? I need something really original, something that's not doing the rounds, something that's going to surprise. The vampire, methinks, won't work for me.

So what's your take on the fanged ones? Edward or Angel? Strahd Von Zarovich or Nosferatu? Good for the game or time to go?

Friday 15 October 2010

Fear on Friday - Trapped in the Dark

Today I'm looking at horror films. I can't bring much to the table on this one, because I see so very few of them. Since becoming a family man, the films we go to see are very much suited to a child-friendly perspective and so I have to think back to stuff I watched in my single days or things I catch late at night when everyone else has gone to bed.

The last film I watched that had me truly shaking on the way home (this will show how rarely I go to the cinema and how little modern horror I watch) was Event Horizon. I found its use of jump cuts very effective at immediately raising the heart rate, and its slow unfolding of the true horror of the rescue crew's predicament gnawed away at my nerves. There were some rather corny bits but the combination of the aforementioned elements and its ambiguous ending meant that I was jittery and jumpy on the way home and for sometime afterwards.

Other than that, it's hard to think of other films that have chilled or scared me to a similar extent. The appearances of the skeletal Death in The Adventures of Baron Munchausen and The Navigator send a shiver right through me but the rest of the films hold little terror for me.

So what is it about the cinema that makes it a more powerful, more affecting experience than reading or watching television? Is is that perhaps we find ourselves a truly captive audience whilst at the cinema? Sitting in the darkness, devoid of any other sensory distraction, we cannot turn off if we think it's going to get too much, nor - unless we want to make a spectacle of ourselves - can we get up and walk away. There is also the factor of the cost of the ticket if we do so - cinema isn't cheap these days. The huge screen, with its visual impact magnified and the much louder sound levels mean that the senses are rivetted and overwhelmed. If you go on your own, there is not even the sense of another human to whom to turn for comfort or escape.

Of course, not all of us watch horror movies at the cinema. Home viewing makes up a sizeable proportion of the occasions on which such films are watched. The impact of these may well be slightly lessened, since there will be the option of escape, others to talk to and contextualise the experience. There is no option to pause a cinema film while you go and get a beer and some pretzels.

Regardless of where we watch horror films, I'm opening the floor to you all to share your cinematic terrors with me. Is it modern splatterpunk or old-style chillers that send shivers down your spine? Do you find sitting in a cinema more evocative and atmospheric than sitting on the couch with the remote in your hand in case it gets a bit too scary?

Over to you...

Tuesday 12 October 2010

Rational Role-players?

I noticed when reviewing the replies to my post on scary books that, like me, quite a few of the commenters were rationalists. I wondered to myself if this was common amongst gamers, and thought "Aha, I smell a poll coming on"

I'm not religious but I do have a fascination for where religions and mythologies come from, what basic human needs they answer and how they evolve, shift and develop. I'd like to think that when my game gets some players and gets going, the pantheons will be realistic, rounded and sociologically credible. In true sandbox style, I may even let the players develop their own deities and mythoi.

RPGs have had their run-ins with religion in the past (Dark Dungeons, Pat Pulling, the renaming of devils and demons for 2e...) but I know for a fact that there are religious roleplayers, atheist roleplayers and no doubt a sizeable chunk in the middle.

I'm curious as to the proportions and whether religiosity or lack thereof affects the RPGer's approach to their games, especially given that in at least two (D&D et al, and CoC) the existence of deities as such is taken as a fact.

Let me know your views on this one. I'm intrigued...

Sunday 10 October 2010

The Young DM - part 2

Well, first chance he got, he took it.

Junior Grognard was keen as mustard to get a session in and last Sunday we did do a bit of gaming with him as DM and me as player.

JG drew a map on some A4 sheets, no dimensions as such and he laid it all out in one go rather than piece by piece but it all went very well. He'd remembered some of the features of the training dungeon and most of the combat sequence, which was good. We had to go through a couple of character roll-ups so that he would get the feel for what to use, the names of the abilities, dice to roll for money. I'd got my PHB out but I also had OSRIC printed out (without the monsters) and he may run from that instead.

I took a thief and a cleric down and both got killed several times (he's using the 'get killed and go back to the start' idea from the Training Dungeon). We were mostly facing kobolds who got some suspiciously good hit rolls and as the thief only had 2hp, he became intimately acquainted with the floor very quickly. The cleric, on the other hand managed to wangle scale mail and shield plus 8hp and was able to finish off several kobolds before an encounter with about eight of them plus bugbear sealed his fate.

JG's enthusiasm and relish in laying it out and bringing it on carried him through - he didn't have access to a quick reference for the monsters (THAC0, HD, AC, damage etc) so I've knocked something up and printed it off as a kind of ready reference sheet, very like the monster summary at the back of the DMG. Basic humanoids, low grade undead and creepy crawlies should see him through the first sessions.

I'm also doing a quick start primer for 1e for any of his chums he manages to recruit. It's heavily adapted from Chgowiz's S&W Quick Start but of course the terminology needs to be altered, plus some of the stats. There is still a lot of work to do on it; I need to let JG read it and see if it makes sense to his age group. It needs to be exciting and enticing enough for seven year olds.

So in summary - JG did a great job and I think that as he does more sessions and learns to build on what works and winnow out what doesn't and gets a feel for what monster levels work with a party, he'll get better and better. He needs to talk the game up with his friends (or at least offer them free pizza - thanks, ZeBulette!) but that's probably going to come as he gets more into the DMing side of things.

As he went to bed that night, I wished a welcome to 'the newest DM in the world'. It can be the toughest job in the game but also the most rewarding - I'm sure he'll find that out.

Friday 8 October 2010

Fear on Friday - Televisual Terrors

Many thanks for the comments on last week's post; I see that I shall have to check out Thomas Ligotti forthwith.

This week, I'm turning my attention to television. Being of a certain age, I was lucky enough to be in my early teens when the great scary TV shows of the mid to late seventies were coming out. Stuff like Sapphire and Steel (specifically the one with the abandoned railway station and the one about the entity that can trap you inside photographs), Doctor Who (The Green Death and the Ark in Space stick out in my mind), The Omega Factor (in which a team of scientists investigate the paranormal and get more than they bargained for). I was only seven when The Stone Tape came out so never got to watch it but I'm told that authorities on the genre praise it as a very scary piece of work indeed.

TV moves us one step further from the kind of imaginative playground that books evoke; with the written word, much of the visualisation is done inside our own minds, whereas on TV, we are forced, to a certain extent to accept the visual opinion of the writer and director. That's probably why a lot of what I found scary as a youngster derives its initial premise from everyday reality - I could imagine that somewhere, perhaps quite nearby, the events of the programme could actually be happening.

More recently, I found the three-part Crooked House by Mark Gatiss (League of Gentlemen and occasional Dr Who writer for the new series) able to crank up the heart-rate quite considerably. It combined a creeping sense of menace with some serious shocks and an excellent twist at the very end which made the watching all the more worthwhile.

Crooked House occupied the slot where usually sit the BBC dramatisation of M R James ghost stories for Christmas. James' stories, which I quite like for their quaint and generally understated effect, work particularly well on TV, especially the ones with the framing device of Christopher Lee as James, telling the stories to his undergraduate students.

So, being British, my recollections are of UK programmes; I'm sure that my US readers will have fond memories of TV shows that have scared them witless over the years. Please feel free to share...

(next week, I'll be moving on to the cinema)

Friday 1 October 2010

Fear on Friday

What’s the scariest book you’ve ever read?

I ask this question because I’m currently the Keeper for my Call of Cthulhu pbem and as such, am delving into the realms of horror literature for hints and tips on what scares people.

There is, however, one problem. None of the stuff I’m reading really frightens me. Nothing unnerves me, nothing sends a chill down my spine. I go to bed after reading them and my dreams are normal.

Is it just me? Perhaps it's because, being a bit of a rationalist, I don't really believe in ghosts, the supernatural and paranormal happenings.

However, I like to know what scares people because it means that I can tailor my Keepering more precisely to achieve a truly spine-chilling and memorable experience.

Note that I’m not including films in this impromptu survey – they’re a different medium. Books is what I’m interested in today.

So what’s given you goosebumps after reading? What would you never read at night? What title truly encapsulates fear in your opinion?