Here’s the Chant: scaring your players

Each week I post a roundup of roleplaying game content, mostly for 5th edition Dungeons & Dragons. This week I’m posting from PAX Aus, and following a horror theme, since Tuesday will be Hallowe’en.

For everyone:

On Ravenloft and vampires:

For dungeon masters:

Here are a couple of zombie illustrations I’ve made to us at PAX Aus this weekend:

Yuan-ti and snake symbolism

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.

Here’s the Chant: Tomb of Annihilation, feathered serpents and Hogwarts

I’m trying to get back into the habit of drawing toegther a weekly digest of content related to roleplaying games (particularly 5th edition Dungeons & Dragons). Tomb of Annihilation is already available some places, so I’ve included a couple of links to related articles.

For players:

For players and dungeon masters:

For dungeon masters:

  • ‘A Guide to Tomb of Annihilation’ Power Score – extensive notes (with page numbers) for running Tomb of Annihilation
  • Dragons Conquer America: The Coatli Stone Quickstart – Dragons Conquer America appears to be a tabletop roleplaying game about the European invasion of the Americas, featuring dragons and feathered serpents. This free introductory adventure is a promo for their upcoming Kickstarter campaign. I’m interested to see how they navigate colonial history and indigenous cultural knowledge. I’m be interested in having a go at running this, so I’ve done a drawing of a feathered serpent that I could use: 
  • ‘Couatl Tactics’ The Monsters Know What They’re Doing – this article suggests how a couatl (feathered serpent) might behave in combat
  • ‘What’s the Goblin Doing’ Raging Swan Press – here are some suggestions about what activities goblins might be doing when your party finds them
  • ‘Mystic College’ Tribality – this article looks at how to run a game with a feel similar to the Harry Potter series
  • ‘Mission to Sewertopia’ Elf Maids and Octopi – this post contains one hundred missions that players could pursue in the sewers beneath a fantasy city
  • ‘Village Backdrop: Farrav’n’ Raging Swan Press – this post features a village that could be included in a desert setting, including a couple of maps
  • ‘I’m Not Going to Let You Do That’ Medium – this article presents some reasons why a dungeon master might stop a player from doing particular things in the game

Content I’ve published recently:

  • ‘Repeating D&D Adventures’ – I’ve recently run a few different versions of the same scenarios from In Volo’s Wake, and I’ve found that’s been a good opportunity to improve my adventures.

Here’s the Chant: Sheep Lord, fungal fey and Amonkhet

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:

For DMs:

For anyone who wants to reflect more deeply on gaming:

Content I’ve recently published:

Genesis and weresharks

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.

Wealth and divison

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.

Babel: free enterprise or imperial oppression?

On Wednesdays I’ve been gradually reading through the book of Genesis and reflecting on the stories here. Last week I looked at some of the genealogy after the flood, focussing in on the interruption of Nimrod. Today I want to start looking at another interruption: Babel. Babel is one of the cities that’s mentioned as belonging to Nimrod. The general direction of movement in the genealogy is toward small, autonomous tribal groups with their own unique identities, but I think the Nimrod and Babel interruptions describe imperial assimilation. 

In this story, the world is described as still having only one language. It describes the people of Babel, who are afraid of being spread across the earth and separated. They decide to build a tower with it’s head in the heavens, so they can make a name for themselves and not be scattered. Shouldn’t this be celebrated? Isn’t this a story of humanity banding together to realise their potential?

We could take this at face value, or we could consider whether this might be a commentary on the operations of the Babylonian empire. When Babylon took over Judah, they removed the elites from the land, taking them to their own city. They were expected to assimilate, adopting the language, religion and diet of Babylon. Empires often operate in this way, expecting colonised and migrant peoples to assimilate, to speak one language and relocate to urban centres. In Australia there has been pressure on Aboriginal people to leave remote communities (or consolidate into a few large remote communities). It’s often been presumed that speaking English is more important than speaking traditional languages. There’s also been increasing presure on migrant peoples to assimilate.

Is the story of the resurrection a myth?

At Easter I published a post where I said that we should treat the story of Jesus as mythology. Some folks said they were interested in what I mean by that. I started wondering what I really mean by that.

Dominic Crossan says that myths are stories that try to explain everything, make us at ease, close all the gaps, show us that everything makes sense and everything is as it should be. Myths explain everything. Myths don’t leave space for more speculation or conversation.

Parables, on the other hand, challenge mythology. Parables, disrupt, question and transform. Historically Christians have often read the parables of Jesus as though they answered questions and summed up reality, but in their original context they often challenged people’s assumptions.

Given Crossan’s definitions, would you say that the story of Jesus’ resurrection is mythology or parable?

Manspreading with Nimrod

On Wednesdays I’ve been reading and reflecting on the book of Genesis, gradually working my way through. Today I’ve been reading another section of genealogy, which describes the descendents of Noah spreading over the land after the flood. As I’ve said before, this might seem dull and monotonous from a Western mindset, but there are some interesting details we might pick up if we’re paying attention. 

One thing I that I find interesting about this genealogy, which we might take for granted in our current era, is that this genealogy describes all of humanity as having a common origin. Today we might take it for granted that all of humanity came out of Africa (or out of Eden) but this wasn’t the case in the ancient world.

One of the details I noticed in the genealogy was the commentary on the name of Peleg, a descendent of Shem. The next says that Peleg got his name (which seems to mean ‘irrigation channel’ – something that divides the land) because in this time the land was divided. It also says that his brother’s name was Joktan, which appears to mean ‘small’. I wonder if this entry is saying that during this period humanity was dividing into small, national groups.

The other interesting detail I noticed is actually earlier, but I’ve brought it up later because I think it shows a different dynamic to the rest of the text. While the rest of the genealogy describes differnt people groups spreading out and finding their own lands, Nimrod is described the first person to become a mighty warrior and as ‘a mighty hunter before YHWH.’ Nimrod’s kingdom is said to begin with a few cities (including the legendary city of Babel) in the land of Shinar, but from there he expands his terriory (presumably through war) into Assyria, where he builds more cities.

I think Nimrod’s actions discribed here go in an opposite direction to the rest of the genealogy. The rest of the genealogy generally describes humanity spreading out and diversifying into small, national groups after the flood. Instead, Nimrod is settling and building territories, and adding other nations to his territory. I think we’ll see this in more detail in the stiry of Babel, which I’ll probably look at next week.

Revisiting Noah’s curse

Last week I wrote a short reflection on the disturbing conclusion to the story of Noah in the book of Genesis. In hindsight I think I approached the story too lightly. I want to acknowledge again that the Bible can be, in many ways, a disturbing text. So I want to warn again that the story being discussed may be describing sexual abuse.

I mentioned that some Bible scholars have suggested that Ham molested his father Noah, after Noah had been drinking. Dylan asked me where those claims were being made and how they came to those conclusions. So I said I’d see what I could find. (What I’d written was just from memory, not from recent reading of Biblical scholarship.) So my plan here is to draw together what some of the scholars have said:

I want to start with Beth’s response, which picks up on some possibilities in the story which I missed:

In Africa Bible Commentary, Barnabe Assohoto and Samuel Ngewa say in their entry on Genesis that Ham dishonoured his father by not protecting his honour, and instead going to ridicule him by telling his brothers.

In her entry on Genesis in World Bible Commentary, Clare Amos says,

‘Genesis has no truck with ethnic apartheid. Rather, the connecting link in Ham’s genealogy seems to be the symbolism of Ham’s descendants as nations the biblical writer feared either for their empires or for their aggressive expansionism, just as Ham’s misguided actions had earlier seemed to to give him inappropriate control over his father.’ (9)

In his commentary on Genesis (part of the Interpretation series) Walter Brueggemann says that this story is juxtaposed against the command in Exodus 20:12 and Deuteronomy 5:16 to honour parents and the instructions in Leviticus 18:7-8 against don’t uncovering  one’s parents’ nakedness. Brueggemann says the story might be saying that Ham had sex his with mother, or with his father Noah. He also suggests that it might symbolically mean Ham chose to ‘penetrate the ultimate personal mystery of the parents by probing their most vulnerable action or condition.’ (89)

In Old Testament Theology: Israel’s Gospel, John Goldingay compares this story to the Leviticus 18 and 20, where language of ‘uncovering nakedness’ is clearly being used to talk about sex. For this reason he thinks the story is probably about incest. Goldingay believes it’s possible that Noah, even though he was said to be a good person, molested Ham, and then cursed him, with his other sons covering up what their father did. He says that it’s hard to know what is happening in the story. Something horrible and hard to understand has happened in the family. (184)

I’ve found reflecting on this story disturbing, but I think it is an important story to hear and reflect on. If it is the case that the family was working to cover up abuse, we need to make sure we don’t end up doing the same.