Redirections

I don’t post here much anymore. I think the blog’s title is too pretentious, so I abandoned it and moved my blogging efforts to Metropollywog, a word my father invented to describe out local city. “City” only in name, it is small with a population of only 60,000.

My recent exercise is House Diedne, a fan fiction site for one of the wizardly factions of the RPG Ars Magica. It is brand new – I’m working on the first real post now (while avoiding continuing my online IRB (Institution Review Board) certification) – and hopefully more will be coming. A second author just signed on, an exciting event, and we’ll see where our joint creativity takes us. Any you, if you follow along.

 

The Best of Both Worlds: Mixing Ars Magica with Dying Earth

I like games about wizards, nothing new to anyone that knows me. I like the imagery of a dark laboratory, filled with books, ancient scrolls, bubbling beakers and cauldrons, with roots, skulls, and assorted bric-a-brac hanging from the ceiling. I like old wizards studying books, crones brewing potions, and adventurous sorcerers prowling forgotten ruins in search of arcane lore.

Ars Magica Fifth Edition (ArM5) is a natural for me. It hits every aspect of a wizard’s life, from apprenticeship to young adulthood and into maturity and old age. Dying Earth Role-playing Game (DERPG) does the same thing, without the emphasis on aging that ArM5 has. An Ars character can start at any age, and an older wizard is naturally more powerful than a younger wizard. A DERPG character can start as a Dabbler, someone who knows a few spells, a proper Magician, and an Arch-Magician, with the latter much more powerful than the former. Since wizards don’t really exist – really, they don’t – both games have fabricated a reality to include them in the game world. An Ars Magica wizard lives somewhere in Europe in 1220 and is part of the Order of Hermes, a union of wizards who have developed rules for themselves to live along side society. A Dying Earth Arch-Magician lives under a dying sun, a giant red orb that is always ready to wink into nothingness, and is part of the Conclave, the social group that imposes rules upon themselves so that they don’t kill each other.

Having played Ars Magica for many years, I’m very familiar with the Order of Hermes.  It is communal, wizards live in groups that form a covenant, which is both a legal term and a physical residence, usually a tower tucked in the forgotten edges of a forest or swamp. Wizards swear an Oath of Hermes, a legal contract that prevents them from killing each other and installs judges and imposes punishments for wrongdoers. It is structured, a wizard takes an apprentice and teaches him the secret of magic over 15 years, at which point the apprentice becomes a wizard. This instruction is very formal, not requiring a coat and tie but specific amounts of time spend doing different wizardly things. One trained, a wizard can cast unlimited spells, both formal spells that he has painstakingly memorized over a period of time and spontaneous spells, magical effects summoned on the spot. Finally, to resist the effects of magic creatures, a wizard has a parma magica, Latin for “magic shield” that can prevent spells from affecting him. It is all very rigid, really.

The Dying Earth Role-Playing Game is based on the four-book series by Jack Vance. Magicians in the Dying Earth behave in almost the opposite manner than the stiff-backed wizards of the mock-thirteenth century. They are individualistic, preferring to live alone in elaborate and beautiful “manses” rather than share the rent. The Conclave is a social club, and the rules that suggest proper behavior are not enforced. They are proposed  ways of staying in the good graces of one another, so that a magician’s fellows don’t plunder his manse while he is occupied with magicy adventures. A “do unto others” mores that is only broken by those with the magical muscles to break it and face possible retribution. Becoming a magician follows an unstructured pattern. Magicians can enter into an apprenticeship, but they can also find and study an arcane book on their own, which also contributes to a loose system of instruction. The rules don’t detail how long it takes to become a Magician. Once trained – however long it takes – the Magician can cast limited spells, making each much more dear and much more important in a story. Secondly, a Magician can’t repeat a spell in the current assortment he has mentally stored. Only one Fireball at a time, sir. While he can do smaller magic, called cantrips, at will, they have limited effects. A Magician protects himself from magic by binding an otherworldy creature to him. Called a sandestin, these alien creatures keep magical effects from their masters.

Very different, the two. Covenants and legally-bound wizards remind me of medieval universities and early guilds, and fit their 13th century world. Manses and social conclaves fit Vance’s fictional reality, where everyone waits for the sun to extinguish and hoards their treasures as they seek more. Everything that can be found has been, and indeed lies in someone else’s workshop. I’ve always found the Code of Hermes and the goodie-two-shoes legal structure of Ars Magica restrictive. I want wizards who don’t steal from each other because they don’t think they can get away with it, not because they promised not to.  But if you are not looking, maybe while you are busy building that mechanical clockwork servant you’ve always wanted, one of your supposed friends just might teleport inside your shop and filch that pair of leviathan-skin boots you just enchanted.

If I had a group, I’d suggest we change the nature of the game just a bit, and put Jack Vance’s conniving, petty, malcontents in the middle of mock-medieval Europe. I wonder how that game would play.

The Boyhood Deeds of Jesus

‘He was reared,’ Thomas said, ‘by his foster-father Joseph and his mother, the Virgin Mary, in an oaken house in the city of Nazareth in Galilee. In his fifth year, he sat inside his mother’s house under a terrible rainstorm. When the storm ceased the Galilee boys, three fifties in number, went into the streets to play in the running rainwater. Jesus heard the boys and told his mother that he was keen on joining the boys at their play.

“You are too young to join the boys in their play,” said his mother “You must wait until you are older.”

“It is too long to wait. Give me your permission to join the Galilee boys,” said Jesus; and she did give it to him.

‘The boys were playing in the muddy waters. Jesus collected the water into twelve pools and blessed it, saying “It is my will that you become clear and excellent waters,” and this occurred directly. Jesus then fashioned twelve little birds – passeres they are called – out of the pool’s clay.

‘A certain Jew noticed the figurines and asked, “Who shaped these birds?”

“Not hard to tell,” said Jesus. “I shaped them from the mud of these twelve pools.”

‘The man walked briskly to the boy’s foster-father Joseph.

“Rebuke your son,” he said. “What he is doing is not right. On the Sabbath day he fashioned clay images of birds.”

‘Joseph returned with the man to the crowd of boys playing with Jesus.

“What you are doing is profaning the Sabbath,” said Joseph. “It is my wish for you to cease immediately.”

‘Jesus clapped his hands once and said in a firm voice, “Off you go.” The clay birds changed into live birds and wept as they flew away. “So that you may discover who it was who made you, of your own accord, go,” the child commanded the birds. The Jews in the crowd were astonished and carried news of this extraordinary event to their chieftains.

‘The son of Annas the scribe had been playing with the boys. He brought a willow stick to Jesus’s pools and broke the dammed up sides, ruining their construction and spilling the water. Jesus became outraged and cursed the boy.

“What you have done has not been to our benefit,” cried Jesus. “May you be like a little branch which falls before bearing fruit.”

‘Upon hearing the curse the boy withered and fell to the ground dead. Such was the power of Jesus’s command. It would have been better for him not to have disturbed the play of the King’s son.’

 

 

‘There was a time,’ Thomas said, ‘when he was a lad, that he walked through the village under the care of his foster-father. Another child ran against him and bumped his shoulder, which angered the young boy.

“May the journey which you have made be one of no return,” called Jesus in a rage, and straight away the child fell over dead. Some members of the crowd who witnessed this doom were outraged, and they called at Joseph over the body of the young boy.

“Depart from us, Joseph, with your son,” they called. “You have been negligent with his reprimands. If you will not punish your son, then it is time to keep away from us.”

‘Joseph snatched Jesus by the ears and pulled him aside. A strong man would have winced in that grip.

“Why, son, have you offended these people,” Joseph asked. “Anyone on whom you pronounce your judgments is taken away from you dead.”

‘The child became angry with his foster-father and reproved him. “Anyone who is innocent does not die as a result of my judgments,” said Jesus. “It is only the accursed whom the malediction punishes. It is sufficient for them to listen to me, not to touch me.”

‘Jesus returned to the crowd with his foster-father following him. The crowd drew up in fright.

“Your son causes great terror to us,” they called. “We have never, until now, heard of any boy like him. Quicker than a glance, what he says is done forthwith. We have not heard tell of a boy like him in the world.”

“He is not like everyone else’s sons,” returned Joseph. “Even though his destiny leads him to crucifixion and death, it would not be for him to avoid his fate.”

‘The judgments of Jesus continued to plague his detractors, and those who accused him he punished. Their ears became deaf and their eyes became blind.’

‘Another version of this tale says that the boy threw a rock at Jesus and hit his shoulder.’

 

 

‘Another time,’ said Thomas, ‘the scholar Zacharias overheard Joseph talking to his son. He sought to teach Jesus, not due to charity but because having such an exceptional student would increase the teacher’s prestige.

“This is an amazing boy,” said Zacharias. “If he were to be taught, he would be outstanding in learning.” The scholar took Jesus to his school so that he might be thus instructed.

‘Zacharias wrote out the alphabet for the student. “Say A,” he said, but the son of the King did not answer him. The schoolmaster grew angry and struck Jesus on the head, using both his fist and his teaching rod. Jesus responded to his teacher with a parable.

“It is usual that the anvil which is struck teaches the one who strikes it, and it is not the anvil that is receiving instruction.” Jesus spoke directly to his teacher before the other students. “The letters that you teach me, the A that you write out, I already know its names and secrets and significance in druidic augury.” And before the eyes of the all the King’s son recited all of the letters, each with its constituent element and its hidden meaning.

‘The scholar Zacharias cried, “Take his boy away from me.” To Jesus he said, “I do not have the means of answering you. Do not provoke me!” He called to his students and the gathering crowd, “I thought it was a pupil I brought with me to my school, but I know see it is a master whose charge I have undertaken. It seems to me that until today I have proceeded without confusion. But now, I do not know whether he be angel or God. Who is the mother who conceived this infant in her womb? What nurse was able to rear this child? His patrimony will not be on earth. I am sure now; he is the one that is born to be crucified, who existed even before the Deluge.”

‘The boy Jesus replied, “You who are learned in the law of God, you think Joseph is my father. He is not. I existed before your birth. I am the one who has wisdom. I know every secret that has ever been in your heart. You have sure knowledge of all erudition. You have read everything. But from me comes doctrine not henceforth know to any person. I have extraordinary news for you, which I speak plainly, without falsehood. I have seen Abraham when he was alive. I have seen you a long time ago, through the knowledge of the Holy Spirit. O expert in Law, I existed at all times before you were born.”

‘Zacharias sat dumbfounded before the child. Jesus continued, “This cross of which you mention, he who has come for the sake of all, to redeem everyone alive, he will encounter it.”

‘Zacharias saw that Jesus knew his fate and that the boy not afraid of it.’

 

 

‘One time,’ Thomas said, ‘when Jesus was seven years old, he was playing game with a group of boys. One of the boys fell over a cliff and died. The other boys fled, fearing incrimination, except for Jesus, who waited for the crowd to come. The boy’s parents came as well, grieving and pulling their hair from their heads. They accused the child, thinking it was he who had knocked the boy over the cliff.

“Wait for me,” said Jesus, “until I reach him.”

‘Jesus descended the rocky cliff and reached the boy, whose name was Zeno. The boy was indeed dead.  Jesus spoke to the corpse, saying: “I am accused, O Zeno, of laying you low. Is this true?”

‘The boy sat upright and said, “It is not true, Lord, not true.” To the crowd he spoke: “Let him go. It is not to be attributed to him.” After saying this truth, Zeno laid back down and was dead again.

‘When the crowd saw this miracle, they let Jesus go free.’

 

 

‘Another time his mother, the Virgin Mary, sent Jesus to the village well to collect water,’ Thomas said. ‘Jesus left his mother’s house carrying a pitcher but did not return with one. Some tales say he dropped it and it broke, and other tales tell that the crowd at the well jostled it and it fell.

“This is a sad bargain,” said Jesus. “I shall not return to the house empty handed.”

‘Jesus spread his cloak in his arms and scooped up a large measure of water. This amazing boy carried an armful of water back to his mother’s house; the water did not soak through his cloak and he spilled not a drop.

‘What wonder that the man who did this at the end of his sixth year should do great deeds for mankind when fully in his adulthood,’ said Thomas.

 

 

‘During the time of planting,’ said Thomas, ‘Jesus sowed a small field with leeks. He did not have many, so it was only a small amount that he planted.

‘When it came time to harvest, Jesus returned to the garden and found that his bounty was plentiful, that the space leeks he had sown had produced a hundred basketfuls of leeks. The others were astonished and carried news of this extraordinary event to their chieftains.’

 

 

‘One time a man brought a couch to the house of Joseph,’ said Thomas. ‘The couch needed adjustment, for one side was too short while the other too long.

“Mend my couch,” said the man, “for I shall trouble you with violence if you fail in this regard.”

“That may be so,” replied Joseph. “Return tomorrow to fetch this couch.”

‘Jesus watched Joseph work. He noticed the uneven pieces of wood and instructed his foster-father to remove the two pieces and lay them side by side on the ground. Joseph did as he was told. Jesus picked up one end of the shorter piece and Joseph picked up the other.

“You take hold of your end,” said Jesus, “and I will take hold of mine.” He pulled on the piece of wood, which stretched as easily as if it were clay, stopping when it was the same measure as its counterpart. With the pieces equal in length, Joseph easily repaired the couch.

‘What wonder that the man who did this at the end of his eighth year should do great deeds for mankind when fully in his adulthood,’ said Thomas.

Preface to Boyhood Deeds

Once upon a time I took an independent study course with Tom Hill, during which I wrote “The Boyhood Deeds of Jesus”. Tales of Jesus’s childhood are fairly common in the Middle Ages, stemming originally from the apocryphal Gospel of Thomas, I think. Childhood tales are also common for Irish heroes, and the literature’s main characters – Cu Chulainn and Fionn mac Cumhaill – both have boyhood deeds stories. I took Thomas’s account of childhood Jesus and rewrote it in the style of Irish legends. In an effort to add content, I’m sending up “The Boyhood Deeds of Jesus” in the next post.

The Sundered Eagle

This is the book I just mentioned, pictured here so that I can play with WordPress’s blog formatting. I don’t know what I’m doing and rather than ask for help I’ll just experiment.

I think my friend CJ led this book, spurred to activity after a solicitation from our line editor and marshaling Mark, Andrew, and me into the mix. One of the great pleasures of this book was that I got to meet my fellow authors and line editor, a difficult task since I live in the States, CJ and Mark in England, Andrew in Germany, and David in Japan. We were all in Cheltenham at the same time for an Ars Magica convention and took some time to hold a super-secret meeting and ass-whipping. (We were terribly behind the scheduled deadlines and I feared that David would take us to task for it. He didn’t, nice chap that he is).

Here is a picture of CJ and I smoking outside a supermarket.

Authors? We look like criminals.

Research leads to Fiction

The fantasy world of Ars Magica mirrors the factual world of medieval Europe, specifically the early thirteenth century. The points that initially pulled me to the game were two: wizards never forgot their spells and the game uses real history as its setting background. All of my early role-playing game experience stems from Dungeons & Dragons and my battered collection of The Players Handbook, the Monster Manual, and the Dungeon Masters Guide. In that game, copied from Jack Vance’s Dying Earth novels, wizards knew a limited number of spells, and once cast had to re-memorize spells to cast them again. This worked well in the books because the spells were powerful, and while spells can be powerful in D&D wizards early in their careers don’t know those spells. They know weak spells, and once cast are reduced to mapping the dungeon, triggering traps, and throwing darts at monsters. One-shot wonders.

In Ars Magica, using a different system for spells and magic, wizards don’t forget spells. A wizard can cast a known spell until the cows come home. Does this make them powerful? Yes. It makes playing a wizard a lot more fun.

The second half of my love for the game was its adherence to real history. Nothing is weirder, funnier, and more fulfilling than real life. You might think that Aragon’s world is fantastic, that Conan treads a realistic primordial world, and that Elric carves his way through a believable reality, and while those are all grand they pale in comparison to some of the antics of our forefathers.  During the papal conclave of 1241, the mayor of Rome sequestered the cardinals in an dilapidated building and refused to release them until they picked the new pope. To encourage their decision the guards stationed on the leaky roof peed on it. That’s gross. It is also very real and sets quite an image. Knights raided their neighbors with regularity. Abbots and monks defended the abbey swords in hands. Academics argued the finer points of theology during the day and drunk themselves into a stupor at night. Dragons and giants roamed just out of sight, saints’ interventions and devils’ temptations were a daily event. The depth of detail is incredible, once the digging begins.

Writing for a project generally means researching the hell out of it first. I’m lucky that I work at a university with a world-class library system, making research enjoyable and easy. I found wages for medieval craftsmen when writing City &Guild, explained neo-Platonism in Art & Academe, and described the city of Constantinople after the siege of 1204 in The Sundered Eagle: The Theban Tribunal. I like the research stage.

I also like the creation stage, when I take the found facts of the past and pull them apart to stick game mechanics and story ideas in the cracks. It is all aimed at the game, so far, but sometimes I go a step farther. Sometimes I take the facts and pull a narrative out if it, writing a short piece of fiction that no one ever sees. Until now. For better or worse, I’ll post some of my unedited fiction here.

I mean, it’s not like anyone is going to see it here.

Collecting Role-Playing Games

A list of the many role-playing games I own and some personal reflections on them.

I’ve been buying and playing role-playing games since the late 70’s. Many of the games I once owned are gone, lost to my many moves, moods, and episodes of megalomania. Some I have purchased again, but the majority are gone for good. I like role-playing games and continue to buy them, although in the last few years my enthusiasm for new games had died. I’d rather pick up and play one of the many games that sit on my shelves. The easiest way to count these games is by shelf, and I shall proceed through the six shelves laden with rpgs.

Shelf One

From left to right sit several Warhammer Fantasy Battles supplements, primarily chaos demons, followed by Mordheim, rules of skirmish-level miniature battles. These don’t actually count as role-playing game although they certainly present a reality for a fantasy world.
Ten volumes of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay follow, the main rules, many supplements, and a few adventures. This is the third edition of the game, I believe, now superseded by a new edition. I have not played this or former editions. They are beautiful books and the game received great reviews.
Next is The Dying Earth Role-Playing Game (DERPG), of which I have a good collection of the main rules, the core supplements, and a couple adventures. I have played it once, but would like to play it more.
Call of Cthulhu and Cthulhu Dark Ages are classics that I have never played. I used to have more volumes than I currently own. I have an old boxed set, circa I don’t know. I’ve never played this game.
Rounding out the shelf are two hardback games I haven’t played: Paranoia and Grimm. The first is a classic from the 1980s and the second is a d20 rules version of a fantasy world based on the stories of the Brothers Grimm.

Shelf Two

To the right of Shelf One and nearest my writing desk houses my current endeavour, Ars Magica Fifth Editon. I have played a lot of this game and written a dozen of the books.

Shelf Three

Below Shelf One, Shelf Three contains my old Advanced Dungeons and Dragons books, including my original copy of The Dungeon Master’s Guide.

Shelf Four

Atlas Games publishes Ars Magica, and this shelf is devoted to their catalog, including Ars Magica Fourth Edition, Unknown Armies, and several titles of their Penumbra line, a series of books published for the AD&D 3rd edition Open License material. Two unrelated works also reside here, The World’s Largest Dungeon, a $100, 831-page adventure bough during a more personally prosperous time, and Reign, written by Unknown Armies co-author Greg Stolze. I’ve never used either book, although I have used the One Roll Engine rules found in Reign for another game (Schism War II).

Shelf Five

Living under Shelf Three, Shelf Five has more Ars Magica books, one first edition book and all of the second and third edition material. I think I might be missing one, The Medieval Handbook, or something. I also have a few Dark Ages supplements, written for Dark Ages Vampire, which is unrelated to Cthulhu Dark Ages (but notice the medieval time-frame-theme). I have the core Dungeons and Dragons Third Edition rules and a few of the odder supplements, Hackmaster Basic, which is a spoof but an perfectly working rpg, Pendragon core rules, and a d20 version of Talislanta. I’ve played Ars Magica, but not the other books on this shelf.

Shelf Six

Actually two shelves, this shelf consists of two different shelves catagorized together because the games would all fit on one shelf. I have played Star Wars Saga Edition and I have several of the supplements. I have played the newest Gamma World  with my son; I think we are midway through the introductory adventure. The other box-sets are collector pieces more than games I’d play: Aftermath, Tunnels &Trolls, AD&D Dark Sun, the City of Greyhawk, and Barsaive, a cheepie I bought to a game I don’t own (Earthdawn). The other half-shelf has Burning Wheel, the original Chainmail and D&D supplements: Greyhawk, Blackmoor, Eldritch Wizardry, and the stapled paperback Deities & Demi-Gods, as well as some indie pamphlet-sized games like My Life with Master.