This post has spoilers about a Dungeons & Dragons adventure from In Volo’s Wake.
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On Wednesday nights I’ve been running a D&D campaign, and this week we had our third session. I’ve been using the scenarios from In Volo’s Wake (but I’ve also been mixing in some content from Lost Mine of Phandelver). Last night the party investigated what the yuan-ti were doing in the quarry near Old Owl Well. The yuan-ti are humanoids who worship snake gods. Through foul rituals, they have been modified into terrible, snakelike forms. In the adventure, the yuan-ti have captured inexperienced adventurers, who they plan to transform into yuan-ti.
Snake symbolism in European societies seems to be dominated by the snake from the Garden of Eden, which originates in the Hebrew scripture and but been reinterpreted in Christian thought. It’s often associated with evil, temptation and trickery – but it could also be associated with hidden knowledge. We could look at the story as being about humans choosing their own path and the conflict that causes with their creator.
Snakes can also be associated with rebirth or regeneration because of their ability to slough off their old skin and emerge with a shiny new skin. In the Babylonian epic of Gilgamesh, it is the snake who possesses the secret of immortality. In paradox, many snakes are also poisonous. So they could be understood as having power over life and death.
I’d say the portrayal of the yuan-ti picks up more of the negative aspects of snake symbolism – evil and the temptation of hidden knowledge. In our game on Wednesday I also wanted to bring out some of the idea of rebirth. A kind of rebirth occurs when a humanoid is turned into a yuan-ti, or when a yuan-ti turns into a more powerful form.
When the players were getting close to freeing all the prisoners, I had a yuan-ti abomination turn up (I have a great abomination miniature that I wanted to use) and invite Sardior the dragonborn paladin to join the yuan-ti and be reborn. Sardior rejected the invitation, so the abomination cast the spell ‘suggestion’ on Sardior, instructing him to kill Kwinn, the half-elf warlock… I let Saridor repeat the Wisdom saving throw each turn (even though the spell isn’t supposed to allow that) and he did manage to beat it before he was able to attack Kwinn. I didn’t want him to actually kill the mage, but I wanted the party to get the idea that they could be corrupted by the yuan-ti.
If you want to read more about snake symbolism in mythology, I’d suggest reading James Charlesworth’s book The Good and Evil Serpent.
I just want to warn that this post talks (briefly) about clergy sexual abuse.
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Maybe one way you can tell Jesus was really a construction worker is that he apparently made a joke about an industrial accident: You’re worried because you think your neighbour has a splinter in their eye, but you’ve got a construction beam coming out of your head! Who’s got the real problem?
We were talking about this confronting parable on Saturday at a meeting about how people of faith can promote the ‘yes’ vote in Australia’s upcoming survey on marriage equality. The parable is a darkly humorous way of talking about the hypocrisy of deeply immoral people attempting to ‘correct’ others.
I think what is really tragic is that many Christians don’t realise that in our wider society we have lost all credibility on morality – particularly with regards to sexual ethics. Christian clergy in Australia have sexually abused children and the church institution has tried to cover up the abuse. This leaves us with no credibility in the wider community if we try to say that two adults in an equal and loving relationship shouldn’t be able to get married.
Someone said something like, ‘Love your neighbour as you love yourself.’
It’s easy to think that being loving is just about having loving thoughts or feelings toward someone else – even if we’re in conflict, if we try we might be able to conjure up positive feelings toward each other. I’m not saying we shouldn’t try to do that. I’ve sometimes found it helpful to be able to do that.
However, I think there are problems when we just think of love just about how you feel toward someone or how you think about them. This idea of love has often allowed people to say that they love their neighbour while at the same time trying to restrict their freedom. This idea of love has meant that people have not listened to their neighbours feedback about the harm caused by their behaviour, because they believe that they’re still loving their neighbour from the depths of their emotions. I’m thinking specifically here about how people from my religious tradition, the tradition that believes in ‘loving your neighbour’ have treated members of the queer communities in particular, but also other groups.
A lot of people think that because they’re directing nice feelings toward a person they’re not acting hatefully. If our neighbour feeds back to us that our behaviour or beliefs are harming them, we need to reassess how we behave and what we believe. Otherwise we are are turning our back on our neighbour, treating our neighbour hatefully.
On Wednesdays I normally post a roundup of content related to Dungeons & Dragons and roleplaying games in general. Here’s this week’s roundup:
For players or DMs:
- ‘Plane Shift: Amonkhet’ Wizards of the Coast – this installement adapts player character races, monsters and challenges from Magic: The Gathering‘s ancient-Egyptian-inspired setting to D&D 5e
- ‘RPG Legends: Forgotten Realms’ LitRPG Reads – an overview of the history of the Forgotten Realms setting
- ‘Playing by Post’ Nerdarchy – explains the nature of roleplaying online without a ruleset
- ‘Tomb of Annihilation Clues and Hints’ Power Score – SPOILERS! Gathers together a whole lot of details that can be gleaned about Tomb of Annihilation, which may be handy for DMs planning to run this adventure – but could ruin the adventure for players.
- ‘Running the Sunless Citadel: The Grove Level’ Merric’s Musings – this article presents some ways to play up the horror themes of Sunless Citadel’s climax
- ‘She’baz: Queen of Aberrations’ World Builder Blog – a backstory and D&D 5e stats for a gargantuan aberration, all mouths and tentacles
- ‘Kassandra Kray’ Crossplanes – basic description of a mercenary nonplayer-character who is secretly on a mission to liberate slaves
- ‘Terrors of the Dragon Empire: Dracotaur’ Kobold Press – this D&D 5e monster is basically a draconic centaur, with variations based on the four winds
- ‘Howl’s Menagerie Token’ D&D Beyond – a one-use token taht transforms the user into a beast
- ‘What Can King Solomon Teach Us About Slaying Demons in Our Roleplaying Games?’ Nerds on Earth – this article is a few months old, but I think it has some good ideas stemming from Solomon/Sulaiman’s apocryphal struggles with the demonic
- ‘D&D grung and other monsters are people, too’ Nerdarchy – this article describes how the DM has used monsters as non-player characters in an adventure involving conflict between grung and lizardfolk; and in a Spelljammer adventure
- ‘Fortresses, Temples and Strongholds’ Walrock Homebrew – a 17-page set of rules for building and mainataining various buildings, from cottages to palaces
- ‘5 Tips To Use Recurring Villains To Challenge Your Players’ High Level Games – this listicle shows some ways that you can make sure some of your villains last more than one adventure, and can go on to become the party’s legendary nemesis
- ‘5 Tips for Helping Beginners in RPGs’ High Level Games – this listicle has some suggestions that I think will help new players get into the game without the complexity of rules getting in the way
- ‘Supporting Players’ Marauding Owlbear – four ways that you can support shy players when running games
- ‘The Art of the Introduction’ The DM’s Table – this article has some suggestions to make sure that your game gains and maintains momentum
- ‘Just Ignore Backgrounds’ Middle Finger of Vecna – suggests that it’s better to just allow players to choose two proficiencies and ignore backgrounds in D&D 5e
- ‘Combating Metagaming’ Nerdolopedia – explains why metagaming is a problem, but also how you can use it to streamline your game
- ‘Useful Tools to Have on the Side’ Insightfulgaming – this listicle presents a few things that are helpful to have prepared whenever DMing
- ‘Ascension’ Nerdarchy – has some suggestions about how fey creatures can be made more frightening by digging deeper into mythology. I don’t think this aspect of fey creatures is as forgotten as Mike Gould suggests, but it’s definitely lost in the Disneyfied version of fairies. Also, here’s a fungal dryad I drew:
- ‘Inside the Bag of Holding’ Kobold Press – this table offers 12 things adventurers might find in a bag of holding
- ‘Fantasy Rumors & Odd Jobs’ Dicegeeks – this table offers 100 plot seeds which you could choose from or select randomly using d100
- ‘d20 #RPHOOK Plot Seeds : 181-200’ Shenorai’s Role-Playing Haven – here’s another 20 plot seeds, including one Where’s Wally/Waldo? reference
- ’30 Fantasy Gaming Flash Encounter Ideas’ Nerdarchy – 10 encounter ideas each for a urban, forest or mountain environment
For anyone who wants to reflect more deeply on gaming:
Content I’ve recently published:
Sunday to Wednesday I was in a class on Indigenous Theologies and Methods, which NAIITS (North American Institute for Indigenous Theological Studies) was running here through Whitley College. One of the things we spent a lot of time discussing was the differences between how Western Christians have read the Bible and how the Bible might be read from Indigenous cultural perspectives. One particular emphasis that our teacher Terry LeBlanc (a Mi’qmac man from Canada) noted was the tendency for Western Christians to focus on the rupturing of creation in Genesis 3 and overlook the goodness of creation in Genesis 1-2. His suggestion was that rather than Genesis 3 being an ultimate fall from perfection, it is more like a break in relationship between people, God, spirits and fellow creatures.
At the same time I’ve been participating in the #DungeonDrawingDudes challenge for July. Each day there’s a Dungeons & Dragons creature to draw, and Tuesday’s challenge was a wereshark, which I really enjoyed drawing.
@bodieh, who lives in Western Australia (where the government has encouraged the culling of sharks) is one of the organisers of the challenge, commented on this one. I wondered whether this wereshark might be looking for former Western Australian premier Colin Barnett? I wondered whether we should be paying attention to what sharks may be trying to say to us, rather than culling them? It certainly seems unfair to me that we would venture into their natural environment and then kill them when they attack us.
This year I’ve been gradually reading through the book of Genesis, and on Thursdays I’ve been reflecting here on what I’ve been reading.
Today I’ve been reading about Abram, Sarai and Lot leaving Egypt and heading back to thew location between Beth El (a city named after a Canaanite god) and Ai, where Abram had build an altar to his god, YHWH. Abram and Lot come into conflict because they both own so much livestock that their herders are fighting over pasture. In order to resolve the conflict, Abram suggests that they separate. Lot chooses to reside among the cities on the well-irrigated plain of Jordan and Abram chooses to live in the land of the Canaanites. It seems sad to me that the family group has been divided by a sense that there aren’t enough resources to share.
YHWH promises Abram that he will give the land of the Canaanites to him and that his descendents will be like the dust of the earth. He ends up settling at the oaks of Mamre – a place that I think could also be associated with a Canaanite god. Again, Abram builds an altar to YHWH in a location that may be sacred to a Canaanite god.
This year I’ve been gradually reading through the book of Genesis. On Thursdays I’ve been posting some reflections here.
Last week I posted about Abram, Sarai and Lot leaving their new home on Haran (in modern-day Turkey) and travelling to the great tree (maybe an Asherah tree?) at Shechem, where Abram build an altar to YHWH. In the section I’ve been reading today, the family group travel further, to a location between the cities of Beth El (‘house of El’) and Ai, where Abram builds another altar to YHWH. Again, it seems (to me) that Abram is building an altar in close proximity to a site dedicated to a Canaanite god – El, the king of the Canaanite gods.
After this the text says that they gradually moved into the arid region of Negev, and eventually had to go to Egypt because of famine. Abram says he’s worried that the Egyptians will kill him because Sarai is beautiful. (I wonder why he thought this?) He asks her to pretend they are siblings instead. When they arrive in Egypt, Sarai is taken to live in the Pharaoh’s house (presumably as a wife?), and because of this, Pharaoh deals well with Abram, providing him with livestock and slaves.
It doesn’t go well for Pharaoh though. YHWH afflicts Pharaoh and his household with plagues. It seems Pharaoh realises what has happened, and he tells Abram to take Sarai and leave. Even so, it seems like Abram is leaving Egypt a rich man.
Having read this little snippet, I wonder why it was that Abram presumed the Egyptians would kill him? It’s actually Abram who deals dishonestly in the story, denying his marriage to Sarai and benefiting from her presence in the Pharaoh’s household.
I find it interesting that this story has been preserved even though it shows the patriarch in a negative light.
I’ve been gradually reading through the book of Genesis. On Thursdays I’ve generally been reflecting here on what I’ve been reading.
What stood out to me today was a small detail which I probably wouldn’t have noticed at one time. Abram and Sarai and Abram’s nephew Lot have uprooted themselves for a second time at YHWH’s instruction. They head to Canaan and they stop at the terebinth (‘great tree’ or ‘large tree’) of Moreh at Shechem. What’s significant about the tree that the people telling and recording this story mention it?
My suspicion is that the tree is a sacred site to the Canaanite god Asherah, the kind of place that some people in Israel later believed needed to be destroyed. Abram’s attitude isn’t to desecrate the site. The text says that YHWH appeared to Abram here, so he built an altar there, next to what may have been a sacred oak.
What does it mean for Abram to build an altar to YHWH? Does it mean that YHWH and Asherah are familiar? Does it mean that YHWH is encroaching?
Each week I’ve been reading and reflecting on Genesis. I’m now posting some of my reflections on Thursdays.
What I’ve been reading this week marks a shift in the story. At this point, I think Genesis becomes a family drama, following the story of Abram and Sarai’s mob. We’re introduced to them living in ‘Ur of the Chaldeans’, which appears to have been located somewhere in Mesopotamia. Mesopotamia is the region that later became Babylon. The text describes Abram’s father, Terah, leading the family out of Mesopotamia and settling in Haran, which might be in the area we now call Turkey. After Terah dies in Haran, YHWH speaks to Abram, instructing him to relocate again, to a land where he will become a great nation.
I was talking with Beth about this part of the story yesterday, and we were reflecting on the fact that Genesis appears to have been developed (from earlier sources) when many of Abram and Sarai’s descendants were living back in Mesopotamia, after having been defeated by the Assyrians and Babylonians and removed from the land. I wonder what it would have been like for them living in exile to read that their family started out here? I wonder what Abram and Sarai’s departure would have meant for them? Would it have given them hope that they could also leave Mesopotamia and repeat Abram and Sarai’s journey?
I think we can look at the whole of the Hebrew scripture follows a pattern of repeated exile and exodus, because it’s been shaped so much by the experience of exile in Babylon.
For a while I’ve been reading though old Planescape material for 2nd Edition Dungeons & Dragons. (I’m interested in running a 5E Planescape campaign, so if you’re in Melbourne and interested let me know.) Planescape is a setting that incorporates the various planes of the multiverse, meaning that adventurers are likely to come across representatives of various gods (called ‘powers’). I find it interesting that the god(s) of the Abrahamic traditions is not represented in Planescape and is generally avoided in D&D, especially since Christianity and Islam are the two most widespread religions. I think there are some good reasons for this. It would be problematic to portray Abrahamic conceptions of God in this context.
It seems that people of the Abrahamic faiths are often offended by representations of their god. I think this is particulalry because of the Jewish tradition of holding the name ‘YHWH’ with reverance and because of the Jewish and Muslim instructions against making images of God. I also think it would be problematic to include Abrahamic concepts of God, because the Abrahamic faiths believe there is only one true god. Monotheists aren’t likely to appreciate a setting where their one true god is actually one amongst many. These might not seem like a big deal for those of us who don’t have a faith or who hold our faith loosely, but for many people it’s very serious to portray the divine incorrectly or disrespectfully. A couple of weeks ago I posted about treating Aboriginal culture with respect, and I think most people who read that article understood this. I think for the same reason we might hesitate to portray Aboriginal culture and religion in a game, we should also hesitate to portray other faiths and cultures, and seek to be respectful.
My personal opinion is that the Biblical concept of God is pretty messy. (I’m not familiar with the Quran, so I can’t comment on that.) I don’t think the Bible has a consistent way of portraying God, but brings together various complementary and contrasting portrayals from different communities in different eras. I don’t personally find this very bothering, but I do think it is a reason why there is so much scope for conflict – some people will focus on one idea of God that they find in the scripture, and others will focus on a contrastic idea about the same, one God. If one were to include an Abrahamic depiction of God in Planescape, creative decisions would have to be made about which Abrahamic ideas to emphasise, and those decisions would be bound to offend some people who emphasise other parts of the tradition. Of course, I don’t people who are happy to explore these ideas playfully and creatively (which is what I prefer) would have a problem with this.
I was talking with one of my friends about this topic and he suggested that another problem might be that it’s hard to portray a god who is understood to be transcendent. I don’t really buy into the idea of God being transcendent myself – I think it has become commonplace in the Abrahamic tradiitons because of Platonic philosphy. That’s why I like what Neil Gaiman does with Jesus in his novel American Gods. Jesus doesn’t directly appear in the novel, but it’s mentioned that he’s been seen hitchhiking in Afghanistan, where he’s not so well recognised. It seems not so transcendent, and more like the itinerant rabbi found in the gospels. My understanding is that in the TV show there’ll be different depictions of Jesus, recognising that different cultures at different moments reshape their images of the divine.
If I was going to include Jesus as a power in the Planescape setting, I think I’d be most likely to portray him as a wandering stranger.